Bad News for Comcast, but Net Management Issue Far from Settled

Carl Weinschenk

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jul 16, 2008 8:26 AM Blizah Blizah  says:
I think its a great step in the right direction. The purpose of selecting a service provider is to try to get the best service at the best price. With QoS metrics as advanced as they are today, it's hard to believe that these large companies cannot properly address service levels without deliberatley controlling what traffic passes through their network. If they are making the argument that this is required for better performance, does it potentially show a lack of investment in the companies infrastructure for profit sake? If so, is that really a reasonable justification? Reply
Jul 16, 2008 7:31 PM Harvey Hayes Harvey Hayes  says:
I think this is good news for all Comcast Customers. We have Vonage Phone Service and Comcast High Speed Internet. The service with Vonage is joke. But we have no problems using the High Speed Internet. So my question as an Engineer is, What going Comcast. Thank God for the FCC. Great article. Thanks Harvey Reply

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