Comcast Testing New Network Management

Company says new system would slow heaviest users, regardless of the applications they're running; still evaluating FCC order.

By Kenneth Corbin | Posted Aug 22, 2008
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After receiving its formal rebuke from the Federal Communications Commission, Comcast is going to be making some changes in how it manages Internet traffic on its network.

The FCC delivered its final enforcement order yesterday, giving the nation's largest cable provider 30 days to disclose its "unreasonable network management practices" and come forward with a compliance plan for how it will transition to a non-discriminatory method for directing traffic on its pipes by the end of the year.

Comcast, which had announced in March that it would migrate to a "protocol-agnostic" method of network management by the end of the year, is in the advanced stages of testing a system that would slow speeds of the heaviest users for up to 20 minutes during times of peak traffic.

"The approach will basically measure the amount of data throughput in your modem," Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas told InternetNews.com. "During a time when we're mirroring a state of congestion, what it would do is de-prioritize some of the data requests from the very heaviest users at the time who were contributing the most to network congestions."

The impending changes follow the FCC's Aug. 1 ruling determining that Comcast improperly blocked traffic from peer-to-peer sites such as BitTorrent, and failed to notify its subscribers about what it was doing. That decision was heralded as a major victory by proponents of Net neutrality, the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.

Comcast, which is widely expected to challenge the ruling in a federal court, has previously argued that the FCC would be exceeding its authority to weigh in on how it manages its network. Douglas declined to comment on the specifics of the enforcement order, saying only that, "We are examining the order and evaluating our options."

New management system in the works

Comcast has been conducting trials of the new network management system in test markets since early June. The system is still being tweaked, but Douglas said that Comcast has settled on the general model for what its network management will look like once it switches its entire network over by the end of the year.

Comcast sent users in the five test markets e-mails alerting them to the policy change, and posted a FAQ page explaining the process. Douglas said that that the small portion of users whose traffic was being "de-prioritized" would not receive an alert to that effect, but that the difference in speeds would be noticeable.

"Still, even in that de-prioritized state, it's going to be faster than a typical DSL connection," he said.

Douglas said that the system is dynamic, meaning that it can update its management in real time. So if a user found his traffic slowed, he could shut down a few applications, and the connection speed would pick up again.

Before, Comcast had been slowing peer-to-peer traffic from BitTorrent and others. But the practice didn't come to light until an investigation by the Associated Press last October. The FCC's consideration of the matter, which included a call for comments and two public hearings, was set in motion by complaints filed by the media-reform groups Free Press and Public Knowledge.

At the Aug. 1 meeting, the commission determined by a 3-2 vote that Comcast's "discriminatory and arbitrary practice unduly squelches the dynamic benefits of an open and accessible Internet and does not constitute reasonable network management."

Siding with the Republican chairman Kevin Martin were the two Democrats on the commission, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps. Republicans Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate were strongly opposed.

McDowell showed his flare for the dramatic in concluding his dissenting statement: "For the first time in Internet history, we say 'goodbye' to the era of collaboration that served the Internet community and consumers so well for so long; and we say 'hello' to unneeded regulation and all of its unintended consequences."

The point of contention is that the FCC's ruling was affirmed on the grounds that Comcast had violated the commission's Internet policy principles drafted in 2005, principles which never went through the formal rulemaking process. Nevertheless, Martin has maintained that the recent action was meant only to redress the complaints that Comcast was engaging in a practice that was harmful to consumers.

"Our action today is not about regulating the Internet," Martin said in a statement on the commission's ruling earlier this month, reiterating his opposition to Net neutrality legislation. "Like many other policy makers and members of Congress, I have said such legislation or rules are unnecessary, because the commission already has the tools it needs to punish a bad actor."

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com

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