Legitimate Network Management, or Something a Bit More Sinister?

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The sensitive topic of what cable operators should and shouldn't do to control bandwidth hogs moved forward on a couple of fronts this week.


Comcast, which is the largest cable operator and the main magnet for criticism on its approach to this issue, said it will test three vendors' bandwidth management platforms for a month in small systems in Chambersburg, Penn. and Warrenton, Va. A third test will occur afterwards in Colorado Springs, Colo., according to Multichannel News. Time Warner Cable this week will begin charging $1 per gigabyte for bandwidth use beyond a preset limit.


Cable operators, whose architecture relies on more shared infrastructure than the phone companies' architectures, are involved in a long-term battle against bandwidth hogs. In most cases, these are peer-to-peer (P2P) users.


Until this spring, Comcast specifically targeted the BitTorrent protocol. In March, it promised to begin working with P2P companies, including BitTorrent, to manage bandwidth. The FCC is looking at Comcast's practices, and Net Neutrality activists are following the situation closely due to concerns that practices ostensibly used to control bandwidth could be used to discriminate against content providers.


A few days before the Time Warner Cable and Comcast announcements, The Washington Post ran an editorial that essentially says the free market is working in the Comcast-BitTorrent situation: The cable operator was accused of singling out the P2P company because the videos it trafficked potentially hurt its business. Comcast denied that and said the only reason it went after BitTorrent was to maintain a reasonable level of service to its customers. The issue was made public, the editorial said, and the two companies agreed to work the issues through.


Art Brodsky at Public Knowledge seems to be almost having fun taking the editorial apart. He claims that despite what Comcast says, it is cutting P2P traffic regardless of whether there is a network management concern. He adds that just telling people what the policy is -- a step lauded in the editorial -- doesn't do subscribers much good, especially when they generally have limited choice of providers.


One of the main points Brodsky made -- that Comcast's public pronouncements are disingenuous -- appears to be at least circumstantially backed up by research done at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Saarbruecken, Germany. The study found evidence that only three operators -- Comcast and Cox in the U.S. and StarHub in Singapore -- block sites. Based on input from 8,175 Internet users around the world, the study claims that Comcast blocked 491 of 788 users (62 percent) and Cox blocked 82 of 151 users (54 percent). Moreover, the blocking occurred during the entire day -- not just in the generally busier evening period.


This is a very important issue that organizations must carefully monitor. If the reality is that cable operators truly are gaming the system under the guise of network management, the ramifications from a regulatory point of view will be significant, especially if the Democrats win big in November. It also should be food for thought for companies planning their long-term telecommunications strategies.