FCC Rules Against Comcast
Saturday, August 2, 2008
A divided Federal Communications Commission ruled that Comcast violated federal policy when it blocked Internet traffic for some subscribers and ordered the cable giant to change the way it manages its network.
In a precedent-setting move, the FCC voted 3 to 2 yesterday to enforce a policy that guarantees customers open access to the Internet.
The commission did not assess a fine, but ordered the company to stop cutting off transfers of large data files among customers who use a special type of file-sharing software.
Comcast says its practices are reasonable -- that it has delayed traffic, not blocked it -- and that the FCC's so-called network-neutrality "principles" are part of a policy statement and are not enforceable rules.
Republican FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin proposed the enforcement action and was joined by Democratic Commissioners Jonathan S. Adelstein and Michael J. Copps in voting for approval. He was opposed by members of his own party, Commissioners Robert M. McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate, who both issued lengthy dissents.
The commission's authority to act stems from a policy statement adopted in September 2005 that outlined a set of principles meant to ensure that broadband networks are "widely deployed, open, affordable and accessible to all consumers."
The principles are "subject to reasonable network management," a concept the agency has not explicitly defined.
Martin said Comcast managers were not "simply managing their network, they had arbitrarily picked an application and blocked their subscribers' access to it."
The agency said that Comcast had a motive to interfere. Peer-to-peer applications are used to load video that "poses a potential competitive threat to Comcast's video-on-demand service," it said.
Martin was particularly critical of the company's failure to disclose to customers exactly how it was managing its traffic.
Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman, said in a statement that the company was "disappointed in the commission's divided conclusion because we believe that our network management choices were reasonable . . . "
She said the company thinks the order "raises significant due-process concerns and a variety of substantive legal questions."
The FCC's action means network operators are subject to the FCC's enforcement process and that the agency will act on consumer complaints.
Before the meeting, Martin said that the agency will consider fines for future violations, but he declined to speculate on how large they would be.
The FCC action did not include a fine, but it does require Comcast within 30 days of release of the order to disclose the details of its "discriminatory network management"; submit a compliance plan describing how it intends to stop those practices by the end of the year; and disclose to customers and the commission its new plan.
The company says it will stop using its network management practice by the end of the year and switch to a "protocol agnostic" technique that will not single out any particular type of traffic.