Comcast stepped into the FCC dock Feb. 25 to face accusations it discriminates in handling Internet traffic from content providers, violating the Federal Communications Commission's network neutrality rules. In the end, not even turning to the Bible seemed to help the nation's second-largest broadband provider's defense.
Before Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen could even joke that he hoped Comcast would not be the "main course" for lunch at the public forum, he was sizzling on the grill in the eyes of a roomful of critics and often-skeptical FCC commissioners, both Republican and Democrat.
A complaint filed at the FCC claims Comcast's network management policy includes deliberate throttling of P2P applications like BitTorrent during peak network hours. Comcast says its policy not only falls well within the FCC's reasonable network management exception to the agency's network neutrality rules, it is also "imperceptible to the customer."
However, the charges extend beyond hardcore network management issues. Vuze, a Silicon Valley video distributor using BitTorrent, claims Comcast throttles P2P because it competes with Comcast's own online video services.
"Comcast not only owns a horse in this [video] race, but they also own the only racetrack in town ... and all they want to do is slow our horse down by two seconds," said Vuze CEO Gilles BianRosa. "We are not against reasonable network management. We are against network management practices with no boundaries."
No matter the merit of the arguments, Cohen was feeling the heat early and often. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., kicked off the hearing by warning the FCC to beware of Comcast.
"The commission should be wary about the premise posed by any carrier's contention of the need for a significant network management position," said Markey, basking before a hometown crowd at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
To a healthy round of applause, he said that "the Internet is as much mine and yours as much as it is Verizon's and AT&T's or Comcast's. The key question for safeguarding the Internet is recognition that the nature of the Net is not the services provided by the carriers themselves."
Cohen said Comcast does not block any legal content: not now and not when the Associated Press and the EFF (Electronic Freedom Foundation) conducted the tests - badly flawed in design and execution, Comcast suggests - last year that prompted the FCC complaints. He said Comcast seamlessly transfers upload requests delayed by network management to other computers in the network.
"What we are doing is a limited form of network management objectively based upon an excessive bandwidth-consumptive protocol during limited periods of network congestion," Cohen said. "We do manage our networks, but don't let the rhetoric of our critics scare you. Every network is managed."
To demonstrate, Cohen said Comcast had its engineers use BitTorrent to download a copy of the Bible. "They found dozens of computers with BitTorrent capacity - no problems, no delay, no degradation, using BitTorrent the way it was designed to be used," he said.
Fellow broadband provider Verizon offered cold comfort to Comcast in agreeing with the cable giant that the FCC shouldn't rush into regulation, but noted that, unlike Comcast, Verizon has ample network capacity to handle consumer demand and that it has "found no need" to engage in throttling.
"Cable has an architecture where users in the neighborhood share a network. That is not true in the architecture that we have used to develop our network," said Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs, policy, and communications.
The FCC probe is the first test of network neutrality rules approved by the agency in 2005. The rules prohibit broadband providers from discriminating in the delivery of Internet traffic to customers, except for reasonable network management purposes.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he hoped the agency would soon make a decision in the case.
In the only network neutrality case decided so far, the FCC in 2005 fined a North Carolina telecom holding company $15,000 for blocking VOIP (Voice over IP) calls that competed with the company's own Internet voice service.
In addition to the fine, Madison River Communications agreed to refrain from blocking VOIP traffic and to put measures into place to ensure that such blocking won't happen again.