FCC's Martin Is Ready to Pounce
Will Comcast be punished for blocking P2P traffic? Well, no. But regulators are keen to at least make it seem as though they're on top of the issue.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin has the votes necessary to hit Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) with a ruling that the MSO's treatment of some peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic violates agency Internet policies.
According to the paper, a majority of the five FCC Commissioners voted late last week in favor of Martin's proposal. During an open meeting scheduled for Friday (Aug. 1), The FCC is expected to consider a "Memorandum Opinion and Order" to address complaints from Free Press and Public Knowledge pertaining to Comcast's network management practices. [Ed. note: Oooh. An opinion memo. That'll show 'em!] FCC officials did not return calls for comment on the WSJ report.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has already indicated that he is poised to punish -- in the weakest possible sense of the word -- Comcast for "blocking" some Internet traffic "arbitrarily," and has circulated a draft order for consideration by the other Commissioners. (See FCC's Martin Ready to Penalize Comcast.) The agency hasn't released the details of the order, but Martin has expressed that his proposal does not seek a financial penalty. Instead, it will likely bar Comcast from using its current methods to throttle some upstream P2P traffic. [Ed. note: "Dear Comcast, Please refrain from doing what you are no longer doing..."] (See Martin Not in a 'Fine' Mood.)
Such a ruling is, in fact, extremely lame; Comcast is already in the process of testing a new "protocol agnostic" approach that it expects to have deployed in all systems by year's end. (See Comcast Getting 'Protocol Agnostic', Comcast CTO: Manage People, Not Protocols, and Comcast Ready to Test New Traffic Cop.) It could, however, set a precedent for other broadband ISPs, including Cox Communications Inc. , which has also been accused of fiddling with P2P traffic. (See Study Alleges a Cox Block on P2P Traffic.)
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) weighed in on the discussion via an ex parte document filed last Thursday that calls on the FCC to address networking management across the board rather than focus solely on the Comcast case. Cable's primary lobbying group pointed out that many top universities already restrict some P2P traffic, as do some wireless service operators.
"If there is to be regulation, it must apply equally to all providers," the NCTA argued. "But the far better approach... is to allow different network providers to continue to seek out the network management techniques that are best suited to preventing congestion on their particular networks and maximizing customer satisfaction." [Ed. note: Note that "blocking traffic" is now called "network management." Please update your dictionaries accordingly.]
But, based on Comcast's historic position on this issue and allegations over "blocking," it's possible that the MSO could try to seek a reversal of any FCC action in the courts.
"It is always hard to respond to rumors, however, we continue to assert that our network management practices were reasonable, wholly consistent with industry practices, and that we did not block any access to Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services. We do not believe the record supports any other conclusion," said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast's senior director of corporate communications and government affairs, in a statement.
She also reiterated that even for the most heavily used P2P protocols, 90 percent of flows are unaffected by network management, and that only 6 percent to 7 percent of Comcast subscribers use P2P in a typical week.
Regardless of what goes down Friday and how Comcast responds, the P2P network management issue likely won't disappear from the headlines for quite some time. The operator reportedly is also facing a class-action lawsuit led by Robb Topolski, one of Comcast's most vocal critics on the matter of network management. Multichannel News also notes that Comcast is facing similar, pending suits in California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., and at least two suits from individual cable modem subscribers.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News