Comcast Performing Peer Review

Comcast finessed its policy on managing broadband-network traffic last week, essentially saying that peer-to-peer applications aren't the problem: bandwidth pigs are.

The operator — looking to rehabilitate its image as a foe of P2P and hoping to forestall network-neutrality regulations — announced it would work with file-sharing software distributor BitTorrent and others to make so-called P2P applications work more efficiently over its broadband networks.

Comcast said it would migrate by the end of this year to a bandwidth-management technique that is “protocol agnostic.” That means that instead of throttling back traffic for specific applications such as BitTorrent, Comcast will impose traffic limits only on those users who consume the most bandwidth (see “When Capacity Is Never Enough,” March 24, p. 8).

Tony Werner, Comcast's chief technology officer, said in a statement that the change will require the operator “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.”


Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement he was “pleased that Comcast reversed course” in deciding to work with BitTorrent, but added that the operator should commit to a specific date when it will stop throttling back individual applications.

The agency is investigating Comcast's bandwidth-management practices, after several public-interest groups asked the FCC to force the operator to stop throttling back P2P traffic. Martin has said he expects the agency to issue a ruling in the matter by June 30.

The issue was kicked into the national spotlight by an Associated Press investigation in October that found the operator was delaying some upstream BitTorrent file transfers.

Comcast also has been sued by at least two high-speed Internet subscribers over its previous practice of delaying certain P2P traffic during times of peak congestion.

The P2P initiative shows “that the best way to deal with these issues is through a collaborative process in the marketplace rather than with legislative or regulatory intervention,” Comcast senior director of corporate communications and government affairs Sena Fitzmaurice said in a statement.

Previously, Comcast's stance on the questions of P2P throttling has been to insist that it does not block any applications or Web sites, and that it only employs “reasonable network-management” practices, in accordance with FCC policy.

With the new strategy, Comcast is attempting to bolster its case against net neutrality legislation that would make it illegal for Internet service providers to provide preferential treatment to certain customers or applications.

Both BitTorrent and Comcast said their goal is to resolve the technical issues through private business discussions without the need for government intervention.

“BitTorrent and Comcast can serve consumers best by working together along with the broader ISP and Internet community to jointly develop more efficient networks and applications,” said BitTorrent CEO Doug Walker.


But Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said “overarching” legislation is still needed in this area. Last month, Markey introduced a bill requiring the FCC to study Internet competition issues that included strong language in support of net neutrality principles.

“Even if today's announced discussions prove successful, they may ultimately involve only the policies of one broadband provider with respect to Internet traffic over its network,” Markey said in a statement. He said the bill he introduced would establish “national broadband policy to protect Internet freedom for entrepreneurs and consumers.”

As part of the P2P initiative, Comcast said it plans to double the upstream capacity of its residential Internet service in several “key markets” by the end of 2008.

The operator did not identify those markets. Comcast has said it expects to deploy “wideband” service to up to 20% of the households in its markets by year-end. That could allow a user to transfer data at a rate as high as 100 million bits a second. Right now, Comcast promotes 12 million bits a second as providing “blazing” download speeds.

BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer-based applications account for most of the traffic that traverses broadband networks, and according to some estimates upwards of 90% of the content exchanged on P2P networks is pirated.

The FCC has scheduled an April 17 hearing at Stanford University on the network-management practices of broadband service providers, a follow-up to its meeting on the topic at Harvard Law School last month during which Comcast was grilled over its P2P policies.