By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
A majority of the Federal Communications Commission has concluded that cable operator Comcast unlawfully disrupted the transfer of certain digital video files, affirming the government's right to regulate how Internet companies manage Web traffic.
Three commissioners on the five-member FCC have signed off on an order that finds Comcast violated federal rules by purposely slowing the transmission of video files shared among users of the application BitTorrent.
Comcast has said it delayed the files to assure that enough bandwidth remained available for other users on its network. But the company did not disclose its practices until public interest groups and the video-sharing site complained to the FCC, alleging that the company had set itself up to be a secret gatekeeper of content, picking and choosing which applications to favor.
Comcast continued to defend its practices, even as it and other carriers have begun exploring alternatives for discouraging heavy-bandwidth users.
"Our network management practices were reasonable, wholly consistent with industry practices and . . . we did not block access to Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services," said Sena Fitzmaurice, a spokeswoman for Comcast.
As of Friday, Republican FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin and Democrats Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein had affirmed the complaint. Republican Robert M. McDowell is preparing to vote against the complaint and Republican Deborah Taylor Tate has not indicated how she will rule. The full board is scheduled to formally vote on the matter Friday.
Details of the order have not been announced, though Martin is not expected to fine Comcast, according to industry insiders and members of the FCC who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the ruling still is pending.
The ruling could set a precedent, analysts said, in that it would send a message to other carriers that they must fully disclose how they manage the flow of traffic over their networks and not single out any specific applications for more scrutiny.
"This is a slap on the wrist for Comcast, but it will be a cutting off of the hand for the next provider who violates rules," said Roger Entner, a senior vice president with IAG Research.
In the months leading to the agency's ruling, some cable and telecommunications carriers have moved away from attempting to interrupt specific applications in favor of adopting new pricing and usage models that would make it more expensive to send and receive large batches of data.
Time Warner, for instance, is testing a metering pricing system in Beaumont, Tex., that charges users by the amount of bandwidth they consume. Comcast is testing its technique of temporarily slowing traffic for the heaviest users, regardless of the applications a customer uses, in four cities.
Lariat, a small provider of wireless broadband service in Laramie, Wyo., blocks any use of direct file sharing -- called peer-to-peer -- because such traffic overwhelms the network, the company said.
"If we didn't do this, we'd go out of business," said Brett Glass, Lariat's owner.
AT&T doesn't meter Internet service, but like many carriers has indicated that it will evaluate usage-based policies given the rapid growth of data use on their networks. The telecom giant has predicted total bandwidth use on its network will increase by four times over the next three years.
Some public advocacy groups, while not dismissing the practice of metering, say companies should invest more of their billions of dollars in annual revenue on increasing bandwidth capacity.
"I don't quite see [metering] as an outrage, and in fact is probably the fairest system going -- though of course the psychology of knowing that you're paying for bandwidth may change behavior," said Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University and chairman of the board of public advocacy group Free Press.