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US: F.C.C. Weighing Limits on Slowing Web Traffic

by STEPHEN LABATONThe New York Times
February 26th, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The head of the Federal Communications Commission and other senior officials said on Monday that they were considering taking steps to discourage cable and telephone companies from delaying the downloads and uploads of heavy Internet users.

The agency is considering rules and enforcement decisions to force the cable and telephone companies to disclose their policies more clearly for delaying traffic that they say is clogging their systems.

Comcast Corporation." href="http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/comcast_corporation/index.html?inline=nyt-org">Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, has been the subject of a complaint after it acknowledged that it slowed down some Internet traffic of BitTorrent, a file-sharing service, because of heavy use of video-sharing applications.

Consumer groups have said that such discrimination against some content providers has been aimed at Comcast’s rivals and is both unnecessary and threatens to undermine the freewheeling nature of the Internet. In his comments, Kevin J. Martin, the agency’s chairman, tended to agree.

“They must be conducted in an open and transparent way,” Mr. Martin said at a hearing Monday on network neutrality and network management. “While networks may have reasonable practices, they obviously cannot operate without taking some reasonable steps, but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block access to certain services.”

In sharp questioning to a senior executive from Comcast, Mr. Martin indicated that the commission was considering whether to levy a fine or issue an order that would limit the company’s ability to slow down broadband traffic to consumers using file-sharing programs.

Michael J. Copps, a Democratic commissioner, said that until recently, the cable company’s policies had been decided “in a black box that the American public could not peek into.” He expressed alarm that any cable companies might be degrading or slowing network traffic.

“The time has come for a specific enforceable principle of nondiscrimination. This principle should allow for reasonable network management, but make crystal clear that broadband network operators cannot shackle the promise of the Internet,” Mr. Copps said. “Our job is to figure out where you draw the line between unreasonable discrimination and reasonable network management.”

The hearing follows calls for the commission to resolve several disputes between broadband providers and file-sharing companies over consumers using peer-to-peer protocol, a system for faster downloads known as P2P, to upload larger video files. But consumer groups say that efforts to manage the traffic may result in the cable companies favoring one content provider or file-sharing company over another.

The commission has been considering complaints made by the downloading services Vuze and BitTorrent and several consumer groups that Comcast has violated a policy statement issued by the commission in 2005 that permits Internet service providers to engage in “reasonable network management.” The term has become a focal point in the revived debate over what is called network neutrality.

The daylong hearing was held at Harvard Law School, near the Congressional district of Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democrat who as the head of a House telecommunications subcommittee recently introduced legislation intended to prevent cable and telephone companies from discriminating in the way they control broadband traffic. (The school is also Mr. Martin’s alma mater.)

Mr. Markey expressed concerns about Comcast’s practice, warning of “the transformation of BitTorrent into bit trickle.”

The legislation faces significant political obstacles and is unlikely to be adopted this year. But the debate over it has set off a fierce lobbying war.

At the hearing, Gilles BianRosa, chief executive of Vuze, attacked Comcast’s decision to slow Internet traffic. The company is a leading provider of high-resolution video to computer users, and has had more than 20 million downloads of its application.

He says the problem is that “the network operator is our competitor.”

“We compete with Comcast with delivery of content over the Internet,” Mr. BianRosa said. “What we have here is a horse race, and in this contest Comcast owns the racetrack, in fact, the only track in town. They also own a horse. We are being told they are only slowing down our horse by a few seconds.”

“We agree that network operators should be able to employ reasonable measures to manage their networks,” he said. “We are against network management with no boundaries. It threatens the openness and freedom of the Internet.”

Eric Klinker, chief technology officer at BitTorrent, also sharply criticized Comcast. “These are techniques similar to what hackers are doing on the Web,” he said.

But David L. Cohen, an executive vice president of Comcast, told the commissioners that the growing popularity of peer-to-peer applications was straining the network. “Independent research has shown that it takes as few as 15 active BitTorrent users uploading content in a particular geographic area to create congestion sufficient to degrade the experience of the hundreds of other users in that area,” he said. “Bandwidth-intensive activities not only degrade other less-intense uses, but also significantly interfere with thousands of Internet companies’ businesses.”

“Far from managing our network in a discriminatory way to benefit our own offerings — other than managing our network to make our high-speed Internet service faster and better — our limited network management practices ensure that everyone else’s applications and services, even those that may compete with our services and use P2P protocols, work,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Martin called it “a little odd” that people are paying for higher speeds and then seeing the service degraded when the company takes steps to slow that speed. Pressing Mr. Cohen to explain how Comcast can sell a service to consumers and then degrade that service, Mr. Martin asked, “Doesn’t it undermine your arguments and isn’t it inconsistent?”

“No,” Mr. Cohen replied. “I don’t think we are restraining customers from using the service in accordance with the way they have purchased them. We sell a service and say it will be sold as up to a certain speed. But it is sold as part of a shared network, and its use will not be used to degrade use for other users.”





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