Cox's Network Neutrality Plan Draws Fire

The No. 3 broadband provider announces a plan to manage its network not based on protocol filtering but on the time sensitivity of traffic. Cox pegs Web pages, voice calls, streaming videos and gaming as time-sensitive priorities while file uploads, peer-to-peer traffic and Usenet newsgroups may be slowed during peak network use. Cox hopes to avoid the network neutrality woes of Comcast, but criticism is already piling up.

Hoping to avoid the network neutrality woes of its cable rival Comcast, Cox Communications plans to begin Feb. 9 testing new bandwidth management practices designed to slow traffic that isn't "time-sensitive" during periods of peak network usage.
"During the occasional times the network is congested, this new technology automatically ensures that all time-sensitive Internet traffic-such as Web pages, voice calls, streaming videos and gaming-moves without delay," Cox states on its policy site. "Less time-sensitive traffic, such as file uploads, peer-to-peer and Usenet newsgroups, may be delayed momentarily-but only when the local network is congested."
Cox's former network management practices were based on traffic prioritization and protocol filtering, approaches that landed Comcast in trouble with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) for violating the agency's network neutrality principles. In August 2008, the FCC ruled that Comcast violated the agency's Internet policy when it throttled P2P traffic by BitTorrent during times of peak network load. The agency also found that Comcast misled consumers by not properly disclosing its P2P policy.

The FCC didn't fine Comcast, but ordered Comcast to stop blocking traffic, disclose to the FCC the full extent of the cable giant's traffic practices and keep the public informed of its future network management plans. After switching to a "protocol-agnostic" network management plan, Comcast is again under FCC scrutiny over charges that the cable company's new management practices degrade the sound quality of VOIP (voice over IP) services such as Vonage and Skype that compete with Comcast's own VOIP service.
Cox said Jan. 27 its new network management scheme is "based on the time-sensitive nature of the Internet traffic itself, and we believe it will lead to a smoother Internet experience with fewer delays." The company also states on its network policy site that the new approach "is not based on the owner or source of the traffic. For example, most Internet video competition comes in the form of downloadable and streaming video from the Internet."
The Internet advocacy group Free Press, which successfully brought and pressed the network neutrality complaint against Comcast, was not impressed with the new Cox plan.
"As a general rule, we're concerned about any cable or phone company picking winners and losers online," Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, said in a statement. "These kinds of practices cut against the fundamental neutrality of the open Internet. We urge the FCC to subject this practice to close scrutiny and call on Cox to provide its customers with more technical details about exactly what it's doing."
Scott said Cox gives little indication about how its new practices will affect Internet users, or if they comply with the FCC's Internet policies.
"The lesson we learned from the Comcast case is that we must be skeptical of any practice that comes between users and the Internet," Scott added. "Cox customers will certainly want to know more about how the company is interfering with their Internet traffic and what criteria it uses to discriminate."
Public Knowledge, another prominent Internet watchdog and close ally of Free Press, was critical of the Cox network management plans.

"The sketchy details of the Cox system make little sense," Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "Usenet is a text-based service, just as is most of e-mail. There should be no distinction between them. Video streaming takes up much more network capacity than peer-to-peer, yet is given Cox's seal of approval."