Comcast, BitTorrent Agree to Team Up on Traffic Issues

Comcast and BitTorrent agreed to find ways that BitTorrent’s file-sharing application can be used by Comcast’s high-speed-data subscribers without clogging up Comcast’s cable pipes and impacting service for all customers.

Comcast said Thursday that both companies thought they could come up with a solution without the need for government intervention. The announcement was hailed by opponents of mandatory network-neutrality regulations or legislation but panned by activists unconvinced that this took care of the perceived problem.

BitTorrent and others had complained to the Federal Communications Commission about Comcast's network-management techniques for the bandwidth-heavy file-sharing system, which Comcast said were necessary to provide a quality Internet experience for all of its customers.

While Comcast will look for ways to adjust its network management, BitTorrent also agreed to try to make its applications work better.

Comcast pledged to migrate to a network-managment system that is "protocol-agnostic," the company said Thursday in announcing the agreeement. One of the complaints about its network management was that it targeted BitTorrent protocols.

“This means we will have to rapidly reconfigure our network-management systems, but the outcome will be a traffic-management technique that is more appropriate for today’s emerging Internet trends," said Tony Werner, Comcast’s chief technology officer, in the announcement, "We have been discussing this migration and its effects with leaders in the Internet community for the past several months, and we will refine, adjust and publish the technique based upon feedback and initial trial results.”

BitTorrent CTO Eric Klinker, who has testified on Capitol Hill about the Comcast complaint, sounded satisfied with the agreement. “While we think there were other management techniques that could have been deployed," he said in the joint statement, "we understand why Comcast and other ISPs [Internet-service providers] adopted the approach that they did initially. Recognizing that the Web is richer and more bandwidth-intensive than it has been historically, we are pleased that Comcast understands these changing traffic patterns and wants to collaborate with us to migrate to techniques that the Internet community will find to be more transparent."

The two companies also said they would work with other ISPs and tech companies on a new distribution method for the delivery of media-rich content like HD movies and TV that would be nonproprietary and nondiscriminatory.

Both companies said they thought the issues could be worked out privately "without the need for government intervention," according to Comcast.

The Comcast complaint, combined with an e-mail blocking complaint against Verizon Communications, helped to spur a general FCC inquiry into what constitutes "reasonable network management, "which the FCC allows. It also drew renewed calls in Congress for mandatory network neutrality, which means that Internet-access providers can’t discriminate against one form of Internet traffic over another.

The FCC, led by chairman Kevin Martin, told Congress in hearings about the Comcast and Verizon complaints and network management in general that the commission had the authority and the will to enforce its network-nondiscrimination guidelines.

At a daylong open meeting on network-management practices last month, Martin repeatedly grilled pro-network-neutrality advocates about the allegations against Comcast, which was represented at the meeting by executive vice president David Cohen.

More fuel was added to the fire after activists accused Comcast of packing the meeting with its own executives. Comcast denied that but admitted to hiring line-sitters not to keep out the public, but rather to accommodate its interested employees.

The hearing came just as a class-action suit was filed against the company in Washington, D.C., alleging that content blocking meant it was falsely advertising unfettered Internet access. Comcast wasn't commenting but reiterated that it hadn't blocked anyone or anything.

While trying to define network neutrality was the seemingly impossible quest when the issue dominated the telecommunications agenda in the last Congress, “What is 'reasonable network management?'” appears to be the $64,000 question this time around.

The issue is more than an academic question for content companies. Much of the bandwidth-heavy content in question is the sort of high-resolution video that studios and networks are increasingly putting on the Web.

FCC commissioner Robert McDowell -- who has argued for guidelines, rather than enforced network neutrality via FCC rules or congressional action -- praised the agreement Thursday.

"I am delighted to learn that BitTorrent and Comcast have reached a resolution to their dispute," he said in a statement. "Consumers will be the ultimate beneficiaries of this agreement. As I have said for a long time, it is precisely this kind of private-sector solution that has been the bedrock of Internet governance since its inception. Government mandates cannot possibly contemplate the myriad complexities and nuances of the Internet marketplace. The private sector is the best forum to resolve such disputes. Today's announcement obviates the need for any further government intrusion into this matter."

That sentiment was echoed by National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow:

"Government interference in the development of this market could easily foreclose or otherwise prevent the emergence of efforts such as this one," he said, "and it could never anticipate the kinds of consumer-responsive approaches that further improve and enhance the user experience, including efforts to respect the rights of copyright owners and to fight piracy."

Not so fast, said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of network-neutrality fans Free Press, in a statement responding to the news.

“This deal is the direct result of public pressure -- and the threat of FCC action -- against Comcast," hs said. "But with Comcast’s history of broken promises and record of deception, we can’t just take their word that the Internet is now in safe hands. This doesn’t change the urgent need for the FCC to take action."

He continued, “The issue of net neutrality is bigger than Comcast and BitTorrent. This agreement does nothing to protect the many other peer-to-peer companies from blocking, nor does it protect future innovative applications and services. Finally, it does nothing to prevent other phone and cable companies from blocking. Innovators should not have to negotiate side deals with phone and cable companies to operate without discrimination. The Internet has always been a level playing field, and we need to keep it that way.”

Glen Dickson contributed to this story.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.