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CAPITAL CURRENTS: Bandwidth management furor

Mon, 03/31/2008 - 8:05pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Anyone that operates a network opposes the Free Press and Vuze petitions

I’m sure you are aware of the petitions filed by Free Press and Vuze, complaining to the FCC about Comcast’s bandwidth management practices, and asking for detailed FCC regulation of Internet operations and management. The FCC issued a Public Notice on January 13, asking for comments, and held a public hearing near Boston. I took a look at the FCC’s docket file – it had more than 28,000 comments submitted!

Jeffrey KraussIn order to spare you from having to look at 28,000 pieces of junk mail, here’s my take. Actually, you wouldn’t have to look at all 28,000. Many of them say exactly the same thing:

Comcast’s blatant and deceptive blocking of peer-to-peer communications is exactly the problem millions of Americans have warned would occur without Net Neutrality protections.

The FCC must take serious and immediate action to put an abrupt end to this harmful practice and prevent other Internet service providers from following Comcast’s example of discriminating against the free flow of online information.

In its comments, Comcast takes the opportunity to explain that it does not block any packets, but does delay customer uploads during times of network congestion. It only does this when a customer is not simultaneously downloading. The inference is that the computer is unattended and acting as a server for peer-to-peer (P2P) distribution of material. And Comcast does not base its decisions on the content of the packets or the identity of the customers.

Verizon says that network management is essential to provide customers with safe and reliable service. It goes on to recite a list of online threats that it protects against, including spam, viruses, denial-of-service attacks, “port scanning” and network congestion.

Verizon also reports that it is working with the Distributed Computing Industry Association, an association that represents legitimate commercial users of P2P protocols. Depending on which report you read, P2P traffic constitutes 60 percent to 80 percent of all Internet traffic. DCIA’s goal is to develop “best practices” for use of P2P protocols that will minimize network congestion while optimizing P2P traffic flow. The group is developing software that would allow P2P companies to communicate with network information flow “trackers” to identify optimal peers for particular peering sessions.

Free Press demands that Comcast and other network operators disclose the particular network management practices they employ. AT&T points out that such disclosure would allow P2P operators to develop workarounds that game the system. And after all, Google – the leader in pushing for net neutrality regulations – doesn’t disclose the secret formulas it uses to order its search results.

Basically, anyone that operates a network opposes the Free Press and Vuze petitions. In general, Internet users support the petitions, although many agree that some bandwidth management is acceptable. I was intrigued by the comments of the Computer Communications Industry Association, a Washington lobby group which supports the petitions – so I looked at their membership list. There were a bunch of names I never heard of, but also Google and Microsoft. Hmmm.

Free Press makes a novel argument. It claims that a recently-adopted FCC rule for the 700 MHz auctions sets a precedent for net neutrality. For the “C Block” spectrum, where the FCC required that the eventual winner allow the attachment of all non-harmful devices, the FCC said that “reasonable network management” is acceptable but that “C Block licensees cannot exclude applications or devices solely on the basis that such applications or devices would unreasonably increase bandwidth demands.” Free Press claims that this requirement automatically applies to the Internet as well – it doesn’t – and that it prohibits bandwidth management practices used by Internet network operators.

The FCC adopted an Internet policy statement in 2005, which network operators support, but Internet users say is insufficient because it doesn’t include mandatory rules. True, the policy statement is not a rule. At this point, the FCC has not even proposed any specific rules. Network operators say no new rules are needed, that individual problems will be identified and exposed by users, and that the FCC should deal with problems on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, the complaint against Comcast caused it to rewrite its Acceptable Use Policy to clarify that it may temporarily delay peer-to-peer packets during periods of high network congestion.

So here is what will happen. The FCC will admonish Comcast – a slap on the wrist. A new FCC Chairman will be appointed in early 2009. Eventually, the FCC will issue a report, concluding that there isn’t really a problem, but that network operators must inform customers of their bandwidth management practices. But by then, the technology, the protocols and the operating practices will have changed.

 jkrauss@krauss.ws

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