P2P Claims Heart of New Net Neutrality Debate

With video file sharing booming on the Internet and hogging bandwidth, broadband providers struggle with network management. 

WASHINGTON-Capitol Hill staffers got a healthy dose of the revived network neutrality debate swirling around Comcast at a Feb. 29 luncheon conference organized by think tank iGrowthGlobal.

A complaint filed at the Federal Communications Commission claims that 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 customers.

However, participants on a panel discussion at the luncheon that examined the network neutrality debate objected to various aspects of Comcast's policy.

"Prioritization has a role in the toolkit," said University of Pennsylvania law professor Christopher S. Yoo. "But, a one-size-fits all [solution] would be a mistake. The challenges are constantly changing and you need a nimble system."

Yoo and other members of the panel repeatedly pointed out that P2P traffic has now exceeded downloads on the Internet. "P2P has a more significant impact on the network than streaming and downloads," said Haruka Saito, a telecom advisor to the Japanese embassy in Washington.

According to George Ou, an editor at large at ZDNet and the former technical director at TechRepublic, said P2P users amount to only 1 percent of Comcast's users, but those users are consuming 50 percent of the company's bandwidth.

"P2P saturates the pipe 24/7," Ou said.

Both Yoo and Ou, along with other members of the panel, agreed that the ultimate answer is for Comcast to build more bandwidth into its network. Until then, though, the FCC faces the task of determining if Comcast's network management of that P2P traffic constitutes a network neutrality violation.

"Comcast is actually blocking or degrading competitors' applications," Marvin Ammori, the general counsel of the public advocacy group Free Press. The group, which has filed a complaint against Comcast at the FCC, claims Comcast throttles P2P because it competes with Comcast's own online video services.

In a Feb. 28 filing with the FCC, Free Press points out that Comcast stated: "If Comcast were to try to deny, delay or degrade the Internet experience that our more than nine million cable Internet customers have paid for, how can we possibly expect to keep them as customers."

Yet two years later, the cable giant admitted: "Comcast may on a limited basis temporarily delay certain P2P traffic."

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.