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Comcast Defends Role As Internet Traffic Cop

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008; Page D01

Comcast said yesterday that it purposely slows down some traffic on its network, including some music and movie downloads, an admission that sparked more controversy in the debate over how much control network operators should have over the Internet.

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission, Comcast said such measures — which can slow the transfer of music or video between subscribers sharing files, for example — are necessary to ensure better flow of traffic over its network.In defending its actions, Comcast stepped into one of the technology industry’s most divisive battles. Comcast argues that it should be able to direct traffic so networks don’t get clogged; consumer groups and some Internet companies argue that the networks should not be permitted to block or slow users’ access to the Web.

Comcast’s FCC filing yesterday was in response to petitions to the agency by the consumer group Free Press and the online video provider Vuze, which claimed that the cable company was abusing its control over its network to impede video competition.

Separately, the FCC began an investigation of Comcast’s network practices after receiving those complaints. That review is ongoing, according to Comcast, which said it hasn’t received any specific orders based on the complaints.

The FCC prohibits network operators from blocking applications but opens the door to interpretation with a footnote in a policy statement that provides for an exemption for “reasonable management.”

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee‘s subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, plans to introduce a bill today calling for an Internet policy that would prohibit network operators from unreasonably interfering with consumers’ right to access and use content over broadband networks. The bill also calls for the FCC to hold eight meetings around the nation to assess whether there is enough competition among network providers and whether consumers’ rights are being upheld.

“Our goal is to ensure that the next generation of Internet innovators will have the same opportunity, the same unfettered access to Internet content, services and applications that fostered the developers of Yahoo, Netscape and Google,” Markey said in a written statement yesterday.

The case with Comcast illustrates the high-stakes battle between those who argue that the Internet should remain open to all traffic, and the companies who argue that some governance of their networks is in the best interest of their customers.

In its comments, Comcast said network controls are necessary, especially for heavy Web users. Specifically, the company imposes “temporary delays” of video, music and other files shared between computers using such technologies as BitTorrent.

Comcast compared its practices to a traffic-ramp control light that regulates the entry of additional vehicles onto a freeway during rush hour. “One would not claim that the car is ‘blocked’ or ‘prevented from entering the freeway; rather it is briefly delayed,” the company’s statement said.

Marvin Ammori, the general counsel for Free Press, said Comcast’s behavior is the second major example of an service provider overstepping its authority in an attempt to quash competition. In March 2005, the FCC fined Madison River Communications for blocking calls by competitor Vonage, which provided free calls over the Internet.

Ammori said that by interfering with video transfers, Comcast is trying to protect its television and On Demand video services.

BitTorrent said Comcast should respond by increasing bandwidth on its networks and upgrading its systems rather than limiting how customers use its service.

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on the problem to achieve a short-term fix,” said Ashwin Navin, co-founder and president of San Francisco-based BitTorrent.

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