FCC wonders if MSO's new 'protocol agnostic' bandwidth management system discriminates against over-the-top VoIP applications

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

January 20, 2009

3 Min Read
Comcast Faces VoIP Probe

Perhaps a bonus track to Kevin Martin's Greatest Hits is in order after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched an inquiry into Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)'s treatment of VoIP traffic… just as the Chairman heads out the door and makes his way to the Aspen Institute. (See Martin Resigning FCC Post.)

In a letter dated Sunday, Jan. 18, and signed by FCC wireline competition bureau chief Dana Shaffer and general counsel Matthew Berry, the regulatory agency asks Comcast why it omitted from its earlier filings "the distinct effects that Comcast's new network management technique has on Comcast's VoIP offering versus those of its competitors."

The FCC's vetting of a "clarification" on the VoIP issue traces back to a new "protocol agnostic" bandwidth management system Comcast put in place last year amid a firestorm of criticism about an older platform that throttled some upstream peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic. (See Comcast Goes 'Protocol Agnostic' Everywhere .)

Comcast volunteered to migrate to the new system, but was still hit with an FCC order that forced it to do so. (See FCC Throttles Comcast.) Regardless of those circumstances, the MSO has asked the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to reverse the FCC order. (See Comcast Strikes Back .)

As described by Comcast, the new platform, which leans heavily on products from Sandvine Inc. and Camiant Inc. , does not single out P2P traffic but can slow some customers' Internet connections temporarily -- possibly for as long as 10 to 20 minutes -- if they are found to be eating up an exorbitant amount of capacity. (See Comcast Details Net Management Moves .)

The FCC is also asking Comcast to explain whether its new bandwidth management system treats traffic from its own "facilities based" PacketCable VoIP services differently from third-party VoIP services that leverage Comcast's broadband infrastructure.

On that point, the FCC cites a recent version of the Comcast Frequently Asked Questions about Network Management, which notes that other "VoIP providers that rely on delivering calls over the public Internet… may experience a degradation of their call quality at times of network congestion."

Comcast appeared to address that issue last summer, at least when it comes to Vonage Holdings Corp. (NYSE: VG). That "collaborative agreement" ensures that whatever network management techniques the MSO ends up choosing, they won't affect how Vonage's voice traffic runs on Comcast's high-speed access network. The pact has no financial terms tied to it, but, at the time, a Vonage official said the deal allows for an escalation within Comcast should any concerns arise. Comcast has not announced any similar announcements with any other so-called "over-the-top" VoIP providers. (See Comcast, Vonage Strike VOIP Pact.)

The FCC has given Comcast until Jan. 30, 2009 , to submit its response. "We have fully complied with the FCC's order regarding our congestion management practices," Comcast said in an emailed statement. "We are reviewing the FCC staff's letter."

Historically, the FCC has not looked kindly on any service providers that have been found to be messing with over-the-top VoIP services. In 2005, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau slapped Madison River Communications with a $15,000 fine and a Consent Decree that prohibits the ISP from blocking VoIP apps. (See Vonage Victorious in Blocking Case.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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