All Talk, Little Action on ‘Net Neutrality Front?

Are Internet service providers such as Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) doing enough to effectively manage bandwidth congestion and provide equal and uncontrolled access to all of its subscribers?

Not really, say experts, who claim it is much easier to engage in selective bandwidth throttling and other ‘Net neutrality nasties than take a serious and perhaps expensive stab at a more permanent and less volatile fix.

“The Internet is supposed to work by routing back over the most appropriate link at any given moment, so it does its own load balancing,” explains Craig Mathias, a networking analyst.

Solutions to alleged bandwidth problems offered by those in the know ranged from putting more time and money into building a better infrastructure to using better network management and detection technologies that could instantly sidestep any potential congestion.

Improved compression was another idea, although this is less effective on video than text files, one expert noted.

“Effective utilization of carrier bandwidth is the key,” said Vibhash Trivedi, vice president of products for Avot Media, a provider of mobile video streaming services. The company developed an automated feedback system that constantly looks at bandwidth conditions and adjusts the video streams and frame rates to deliver the best user experience.

Bandwidth providers are always the first to complain about it but aren’t doing much to solve the problem, he added.

Comcast claims it has at least taken the first step toward a workable solution by offering a collaborative olive branch to BitTorrent, a P2P file-sharing a company that filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) charging Comcast with singling out and blocking its application on the Internet.

These charges and others led to FCC hearings and an agreement from Comcast to investigate protocol agnostic solutions from BitTorrent and others that would replace application-specific bandwidth-blocking activities and instead focus on individual bandwidth-hogging cases.

Comcast declined comment on exactly where the discussions with BitTorrent might lead or which bandwidth management technology might be a front-runner. Too early to tell, said Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, Comcast continues blocking or throttling back on P2P applications that congest the network and impact services, she noted.

The ISP giant is also reportedly considering additional fees for power downloaders who exceed established monthly limits on the amount of music, movies and other content transferred over its network.

One figure Comcast is toying with is 250 gigabytes per month, which roughly translates to 50 high-definition movies or more than 6,000 songs. Users would be charged $15 for every 10 gigabytes over this limit, according to reports.

Next page: Debate and discussions continue
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Debate and discussions continue

Last week, Comcast and others took part in yet another hearing on ‘Net neutrality and other network issues, this time hosted by the House Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C.

The Distributed Computing Industry Association (DCIA), a trade group representing more than 100 P2P and social networking software providers, content rights holders, Internet service providers (ISPs) and others, also convened in Los Angeles to discuss the problems and possible alternatives.

One action on the table is to establish a guideline for “the safe and efficient use of P2P services,” DCIA CEO Marty Lafferty said in a statement.

The goal of this initiative is to have everyone concerned agree to a set of rules of operation and effectively police themselves to avoid any government intervention.

“This effort will supersede the previously announced proposal to develop a ‘P2P Bill of Rights & Responsibilities (BRR)’ and broaden the scope of this endeavor,” Lafferty said.

BitTorrent chief technology officer Eric Klinker doesn’t buy into the excuse that no temporary alternatives exist to targeting P2P application, or claims that the Internet is running out of steam.

“It’s just a fact of life. Technology’s not going to stand still, and the Internet is not going to stop growing,” said Klinker, who spent some time working at an ISP. “Investing more in the technology and infrastructure would avoid any real or imagined problems. A little more competition wouldn’t hurt either,” he noted.

Supporting this view is an ABI Research study released earlier this year that points to an impending bandwidth crunch due to increased IPTV activities and high-definition television programming.

As a result, cable operators worldwide are expected to spend up to $80 billion over the next several years to expand network bandwidth.

“If you are a seller of those kinds of services, the best thing you could hope for is a shortage,” analyst Craig Mathias said. “The Internet is a big, global worldwide phenomenon, and I just don’t see it being constrained by any single carrier or operator.”

Updates prior version to clarify that the House hearing on ‘Net Neutrality was last week.

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