Is Comcast serving users or itself?

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Consider this statement: "Critical decisions should not be based on the demands of the vocal minority . . . but on what is needed to serve the best interests of all Internet users." This laudable statement is taken from Comcast's response to the public notices issued by the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau on Jan. 13.

The reason for the notices and Comcast's response was Vuze, a company that uses peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to distribute movies, alleged its service was being intentionally degraded by Comcast. Comcast's tedious and lengthy response confirms that the ISP was, in fact, doing just that.

So why would Comcast mess with Vuze's service or any other traffic? According to an Ars Technica article, "In the Comcast network, each node typically serves 450 households, but when as few as 15 BitTorrent upload sessions are running concurrently, all 450 homes can see their network access impeded enough to be noticeable when surfing and making VoIP calls."

To deal with Vuze and other P2P services such as BitTorrent, Comcast was throttling back P2P traffic to minimize potential network disruption for customers. Like the other big ISPs, Comcast makes no service-level commitment to consumers so whatever bandwidth you get is whatever you get, and if the throttling impacts what you're doing, tough luck.

Of course, should Comcast decide to use P2P techniques to deliver movies it will, unlike Vuze, be completely free to do so. And should it decide that any other type or source of traffic is not in "the best interest of all Internet users" it might choose to block that as well.

While you might argue that it is Comcast's network and it is entitled to do what it wants, there are two serious issues to consider.

First, there is the issue of free and fair competition in the marketplace. What Comcast's traffic shaping does is exclude potential competitors from access to media that Comcast is publicly licensed to supply.

Second, there's the damping effect: Any start-up Internet business has to wonder whether its traffic will be interfered with by the likes of Comcast. This is enough of a risk to sink any number of fledgling businesses before they are even launched.

That said, there's another, bigger issue that faces us collectively: As a society, we need the 'Net to not only work but work well. Really well. At stake is America's global competitiveness. Limited Internet access and poor performance, whether quantified or not, will be a huge impediment to us being, as a culture, "in the game." The quality of the Internet experience affects everything from e-commerce to productivity and innovation.

The answer is not to regulate how Comcast manages its own network. Nope, I'm not kidding. Let it do whatever it wants. But only allow that behavior where consumers have a choice of service providers. Where there is competition the players will play rationally, but to make competition come about we will unfortunately need regulation.

If Comcast had to compete head to head with other ISPs, do you really think it would risk losing customers by shaping traffic? That's what keeps markets honest -- when customers have a choice and can vote with their dollars.

But the fact is there isn't much competition in many markets, so ISPs will continue to be tempted to manipulate traffic. That will, in turn, result in users demanding regulations that would hamper that ability. And while that might sound desirable, it is a fact that any such regulations would never work given legislators lack of technical expertise ("tubes" -- need I say more?).

So rather than regulating the use of technology, let legislators regulate the technology market to create a competitive environment where consumers have real choice. As onerous as it is to involve politics in technology at all, using legislation to create competition is the one strategy we can use to "serve the best interests of all Internet users."

This story, "Is Comcast serving users or itself?" was originally published by Network World.

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