Cable operator Comcast got bad news this week as Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said the company violated "agency principles" that mandate open access and that he will push for punishment. A vote could occur at an open meeting on August 1.
The festering issue involves the degree to which broadband service providers can peek into and control network traffic. Many suspect that Comcast and other ISPs are using the technologies to exert undue control on what travels through their networks for competitive advantage. Operators say that such management is necessary in order to keep networks operating efficiently, especially under the onslaught of peer-to-peer traffic.
Clearly, the chairman of the FCC stating his position is big news. Also, a look at the fine print suggests that the matter is about as far from settled as it was before the announcement.
The FCC is on the verge of punishing Comcast for violating "agency principles." That's a bit vague. The agency dips further into vagueness by saying that ISPs are entitled to exercise "reasonable network management." Indeed, Comcast -- in its response quoted in the AP piece -- says that the FCC has never defined this phrase.
The bottom line is that regardless of whether Comcast or any other ISP seek to use their network for nefarious purposes, legitimate uses of the hardware and software tools -- which are made by companies such as Allot and Sandvine -- exist. At the end of the day, decisions will have to be made by regulatory bodies on precisely what is permissible and what isn't. Generally, parties are punished for violating regulations and laws -- not principles.
Comcast is at least making a public effort to demonstrate its good will. It signed an agreement with BitTorrent earlier this year and this week announced one with Vonage, with whom it competes for phone customers. The two said that they will collaborate to ensure that Comcast's network management approaches do not interfere with Vonage's phone services.
Don't look for this issue to be settled quickly. Meanwhile, Google is developing software tools that will let people know exactly what is happening with their broadband connection.