Comcast Ready to Test New Traffic Cop
But it's still unclear whether Comcast can avoid the ire of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Network Neutrality advocates while keeping "disproportionally heavy users" under control.
The MSO confirmed it will start 30-day trials tomorrow in Chambersburg, Pa., and Warrenton, Va., and kick off another in Colorado Springs, Colo., later this summer. Comcast has issued a memo to customers who are subject to the first two pilots.
Comcast has not released many technical details, but its Network Management Policy page notes that the new approach "will focus on the bandwidth consumption activity of individual customers who are contributing to congestion on Comcast's network. The technique measures only aggregate bandwidth consumption, not the protocol or content being used by customers."
The MSO is clearer when it comes to examples of what some customers might experience without the new technique in place: "slow access to email, sluggish Web surfing, or low-quality streaming audio and video" during "periods of network congestion."
Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said the MSO has selected technologies from three different suppliers for the initial trio of test markets. Those trials will help Comcast determine which platforms run the smoothest and will likely come into play when the MSO decides to roll out the system more broadly.
So far, two vendors -- Camiant Inc. and Sandvine Inc. -- have come forth with new or enhanced systems that would appear to fit what Comcast is vetting. (See All's 'Fair' in Love & Bandwidth Management, Camiant Intros 'Fair Use' Bandwidth System, and Sandvine Unveils FairShare.) And, to connect the dots further, Comcast says the technologies it's testing will give "fair and equal access to the Internet and to bandwidth resources."
Comcast is also starting to throw around the term "bandwidth-usage thresholds" in its public network management documents, but so far the MSO has not announced any firm plans to introduce a usage-based Internet services model. (See Comcast Caps Coming? and TWC Tees Up Metered Internet Trial .)
It will be some time yet before it's determined whether Comcast's new platform passes muster with the FCC, which launched a probe prompted by complaints about how the operator was throttling peer-to-peer traffic. (See FCC Mulling New Internet Rules .)
The FCC had no comment about the coming trials, and did not indicate when it might make a ruling on the matter or discuss any possible outcomes. FCC chairman Kevin Martin was pleased with Comcast announcing intentions to beef up its upstream capacity and migrate to the new capacity system by yearend. But he wants the MSO to commit more firmly to a date when it will stop "arbitrarily blocking certain applications on its network." (See FCC Chair to Comcast: Set a Date.)
Martin's continued characterization of Comcast's practices spawned a nastygram from the MSO, which has vehemently denied it is blocking any Internet services or apps.
Although it's not wild about consumption caps, Free Press believes the protocol-agnostic approach "is legal and appropriate."
"In fact, we recommended that as a substitute for blocking when we filed our complaint against Comcast some months ago," Free Press policy director Ben Scott said in a statement. Still, the organization views usage-based billing and new capacity management tactics as "Band-Aids" and "ways to solve a short-term capacity shortfall."
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News