Cable giant Comcast may again be in network neutrality hot water with the Federal Communications Commission. The agency is investigating concerns that Comcast's new network 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.
In a Jan. 17 letter to Comcast, the FCC told Comcast to provide "a detailed justification for Comcast's disparate treatment of its own VOIP service as compared to that offered by other VOIP providers on its network." The FCC also wants to know why the company has failed to disclose "the distinct effects that Comcast's new network management technique has on Comcast's VOIP offering versus those of its competitors." Comcast's network management practices have been under review since the FCC declared Aug. 1 Comcast was violating the agency's Internet policy when it blocked P2P traffic by BitTorrent. The agency also found that Comcast misled consumers when it did not properly disclose its P2P policy. While Comcast was not fined for the network neutrality violation, the FCC ordered Comcast to cease the practice and to keep the public informed of its future network management plans.
According to Comcast, its new protocol-agnostic network management policies allow for slowing network traffic during heavily congested traffic periods that could make "VOIP call sounds choppy" when routing packets through congested areas of the network. Comcast's own VOIP service, though, will be unaffected by the network policy.
"Critically, [Comcast] draws no distinction between Comcast's VOIP offering and those offered by its competitors," the FCC said in the letter to Comcast. "To the extent that Comcast maintains that its VOIP offering is a telephone service offering transmission facilities for VOIP calls distinct from Comcast's broadband offering, then it would appear the fee Comcast assesses its customers for VOIP pays in part for the privileged transmission of information of the customer's choosing across Comcast's network."
The FCC ordered Comcast to reply to the inquiry by Jan. 30. A Comcast spokesman said, "We have fully complied with the FCC's order regarding our congestion management practices. We are reviewing the FCC staff's letter."
Free Press, which successfully pursued the BitTorrent network neutrality case before the FCC, outlined similar VOIP concerns in an October letter filed with the FCC after Comcast made its new network management practices public. Free Press also expressed concern over Comcast's different treatment of video services and urged further investigation into the company's new practices.
Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, said in a Jan. 19 statement the FCC letter to Comcast "is a positive sign that the FCC's Comcast decision was not a one-and-done action on net neutrality. An open Internet cannot tolerate arbitrary interference from Internet service providers. Congress and the FCC must close any legal loopholes that permit anti-competitive behavior to thrive."
In August 2005, the FCC declared that consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, run applications and services of their choice and plug in and run legal devices of their choice. The FCC also said consumers have a right to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers.