Comcast P2P Blocking Reignites Neutrality Debate

Published December 1, 2007

Congress is planning to revisit network neutrality legislation by year end, with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce expected to move as early as mid-November, according to reports at press time.

Network neutrality legislation would require service providers to treat all content identically as it crosses their networks. Carriers would not be permitted to block, prioritize, or manage data or content from third-party sites.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) is reportedly planning to reintroduce the network neutrality bill that failed to carry last year. In addition, the Senate may take up a similar bill first introduced in 2006, reintroduced in January by Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND), and eventually tabled.

Attempts to legislate network neutrality were defeated in both chambers last year, and the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and U.S. Department of Justice have come out against it.

Comcast Slows Traffic

The legislative moves come amid reports that cable TV giant Comcast has been slowing down large volumes of traffic headed for peer-to-peer file-sharing sites such as BitTorrent, eDonkey, and Gnutella, according to a report by the Associated Press, and an incident of third-party blocking of wireless content.

Comcast did not deny the October 16 story by AP reporter Peter Svensson, and instead asserted its right to adjust the way its network allocates bandwidth to individual users in order to prevent service degrading for other customers. The measures, Comcast said, were aimed at a small number of users and employed at specific times of heavy network use.

AP’s independent testing discovered Comcast was predominantly interfering with voluminous uploads–large files from individual PCs to file-sharing sites–and not interfering with any access or downloads from the Web–a concern voiced often by network neutrality proponents.

AP inaccurately headlined the story that Comcast “blocks” Internet traffic. Svensson never goes that far, and follow-up reports found Comcast was only slowing down isolated P2P uploads by reducing the number of simultaneous connections the user could have to the file-sharing site.

As George Ou, an IT journalist for ZDNet, explained in his November 6 blog, “We can think of it as a freeway onramp that has lights on it to rate limit the number of cars that may enter a freeway. … If you didn’t have the lights and everyone tries to pile on to the freeway at the same time, everyone ends up with worse traffic.”

AP also concluded quality of service was the motivating factor behind the slowdown. Comcast is “managing its network to keep file-sharing traffic from swallowing too much bandwidth and affecting the Internet speeds of other subscribers,” wrote Svensson.

P2P applications, which often involve swapping of movies, high-resolution images, and other high-bandwidth content, create congestion on the Internet. (See sidebar.) Although used by a small share of users, P2P accounts for between 50 percent and 90 percent of overall Internet traffic, according to a survey this year by Ipoque GmbH, a German vendor of traffic-management equipment.

Complex Issue

The only other incident this year that raised network neutrality questions was the blanking out of lyrics critical of President George W. Bush during an AT&T wireless Webcast of a Pearl Jam concert. It turned out the company managing the Webcast, not AT&T, had unilaterally decided to delete the lyrics. AT&T apologized and made an uncut version of the concert available to customers.

Comcast’s actions, however, give neutrality proponents “a real example [of applications blocking] to point to,” said Timothy D. Lee, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute. He noted the case demonstrates the complexity of the neutrality debate. “What’s the issue? Is it free speech? Is it preference for commercial partners? Is it network management?”

Comcast would have engendered greater consumer goodwill, Lee said, if it had been more upfront about its policies regarding allocation of bandwidth and what levels of use might trigger a block. An ISP could do this is by identifying users of large amounts of bandwidth and advising them that heavy throughput would be scaled back at peak times.

Nonetheless, Lee added, while network neutrality regulation might prohibit “bad actors,” it would interfere with ISPs’ efforts to use traffic control models to improve quality–and would therefore create many more problems than it would solve.

Scott Wallsten, senior fellow and director of communications policy studies at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, suggests usage-based pricing for heavy users, as opposed to the flat-rate pricing that’s common now, would at least force them to pay the cost of the congestion they create (see article, page 7), but Lee says such a conversion might be difficult because “consumers still don’t really know what a megabit costs.”

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s senior fellow for telecom and information technology and managing editor of IT&T News.