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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

paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 4:13:39 PM
re: Comcast Faces VoIP Probe
1 - I have experienced the issue with the UMA service I had. It works worse on cable than it does on DSL.

2 - Why are they only looking at voice? Is this a precursor to video (for which they have OTT over DOCSIS versus broadcast channels)?

seven
Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 4:13:38 PM
re: Comcast Faces VoIP Probe No doubt...makes one wonder if a probe into over-the-top video services will indeed be next given how many services and new broadband-fed video boxes (Roku, et al) are on the market now.

That topic reminds me of a blog post from Insight chief Michael Wilner last year that discussed the concept of a premium cable broadband "express lane" for third-party video providers. Technically speaking, it could be done with PacketCable Multimedia, but, as Wilner pointed out then, MSOs would probably avoid doing that amid a continued "threat of regulation."

http://www.lightreading.com/bl...

Jeff
paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 4:13:38 PM
re: Comcast Faces VoIP Probe bollocks,

I guess since the web runs over the top you are for blocking all non-Comcast websites.

seven
bollocks187 12/5/2012 | 4:13:38 PM
re: Comcast Faces VoIP Probe Comcast should blokc the over the top services from BS compnaies that are riding for FREE.

We are a capitalist market not a socialist one (soon maybe) - most of the over the top companies are on welfare.

I vote to block them all - lol
Stevery 12/5/2012 | 4:13:36 PM
re: Comcast Faces VoIP Probe Comcast should blokc the over the top services from BS compnaies that are riding for FREE.

Right, and we should start with the pinko Commies at LR. Those freeloading publishers have been sponging off the public internet for YEARS!
fgoldstein 12/5/2012 | 4:13:35 PM
re: Comcast Faces VoIP Probe Martin has gone, but he wanted to crap on the floor on the way out.

This has nothing to do with the Internet. Cable triple play uses physical-layer muxing to separate three services. Cable Service (TV) goes in the downstream. Cable modem Internet service goes on DOCSIS. Telephone service goes over PacketCable reserved digital bandwidth, which is muxed out of the DOCSIS stream at the physical layer, so that there's an Internet bit stream and a PacketCable bit stream. The PackeCable bit stream never touches the Internet.

The one possible mistake that the cable guys have made is that they're claiming that their PacketCable phone services (Comcast Digital Voice) are not CLEC telecommunications service, but "interconnected VoIP". This is based on the PacketCable's voice encapsulation using IP headers. So there's a CLEC selling wholesale service to the retail side, who sells it as VoIP.

But there are no legal boundaries around what is VoIP and what isn't. There's a non-rule that VoIP-originated calls don't pay access charges. K-Mart's proposed Intercarrier Compensation order (now an Appendix to a pending NPRM) would have codified that as a rule, but it didn't go ahead. Still, this saves those cable-phone lines maybe a couple of bucks a month, vs. those like Cox and RCN who do still treat it as a CLEC service.

So the FCC's logic now is that if it's VoIP and not CLEC, then it should be lumped in with the rest of the Internet traffic and PacketCable should be disabled. (That would kill the service.) OR they could certificate it as a CLEC service and pay the access charges, deal with state regulators directly, etc. (That would be trivial for Comcast, but a possible problem for the smaller cable ops who are not certificated as CLECs in every state, and depend on third parties for the interconnection.)

But while that may be something Martin's remaining minions can try to argue, there's the flip side: The FCC's attempt to regulate the Internet itself, including the rules that Comcast agreed to, is illegal, not based on any statutory authority. (Note that I have previously posted an article on my ionary.com web site that says that Madison River was "rolled" by the FCC. Not because I like Madison River -- they were a low form of life -- but because even pond scum deserves the rule of law. And if it's legal to roll someone because he's a drunken bum, it's legal to roll anyone.) Comcast is arguing that one in court, and I suspect it's legally the right answer. Martin's interpretation of right and wrong have always boiled down to "if and when Comcast does it, it's wrong, and if and when ATT or Verizon does it, it's right." And it's obvious.
Michael Harris 12/5/2012 | 4:13:26 PM
re: Comcast Faces VoIP Probe
This has nothing to do with the Internet. Cable triple play uses physical-layer muxing to separate three services. Cable Service (TV) goes in the downstream. Cable modem Internet service goes on DOCSIS. Telephone service goes over PacketCable reserved digital bandwidth, which is muxed out of the DOCSIS stream at the physical layer, so that there's an Internet bit stream and a PacketCable bit stream. The PackeCable bit stream never touches the Internet.


Spot on.

Also, in case the FCC hasn't noticed, cable MSOs are the only large-scale, facility-based competitors for lifeline residential voice service in the U.S. Why on earth would the FCC want to undermine this?

PacketCable voice uses bandwidth carved out at the MAC layer specifically for POTS, and consumers pay for this application (and bandwidth) separately from their Internet access service.

Comparing PacketCable voice and over-the-top VoIP is an apples-to-oranges proposition. If the FCC were serious about competitive parity, they could require MSOs to sell CLECs unbundled access to their PacketCable voice network (PCVN), rather than comparing the performance of the PCVN to VoIP that runs over a MSOGÇÖs Internet service. Of course, requiring the ILECs to unbundle affordably might be a far better policy investment, given their still-dominant market position.

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