FCC May Limit Companies’ Slowing of Web Traffic

Head of FCC Speaks at Public Hearing on Network Neutrality at Harvard Law School Yesterday

The head of the Federal Communications Commission and other senior officials said Monday that they were considering taking steps to discourage cable and telephone companies from discriminating against content providers as the broadband companies go about managing heavy Internet traffic that they say is clogging their networks.

The agency is considering new rules and enforcement decisions that would force the cable and telephone companies to more clearly disclose to consumers the circumstances in which they might delay some traffic. Comcast recently disclosed that the heavy use of video sharing applications has forced them to slow down some broadband traffic. Consumer groups have replied that such packet discrimination is both unnecessary and potentially threatens to undermine the freewheeling nature of the Internet.

“They must be conducted in an open and transparent way,” said Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the FCC, at a hearing on network neutrality and network management here Monday. “While networks may have reasonable practices, they obviously cannot operate without taking some reasonable steps but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block access to certain services.”

Michael J. Copps, a Democratic commissioner, said that until recently, the cable companies had made decisions “in a black box that the American public could not peek into.” He expressed alarm that any cable companies might be degrading or slowing down network traffic.

“The time has come for a specific enforceable principle of non-discrimination at the FCC,” Copps said. “Our job is to figure out where you draw the line between unreasonable discrimination and reasonable network management.”

The hearing comes as the commission has been called to resolve a growing number of disputes between broadband providers and file-sharing companies over consumers using peer-to-peer protocol to upload larger video files. Cable companies say that the growing use by consumers of the Internet to get large video files is beginning to clog their networks.

But consumer groups say that efforts to manage the traffic may result in the cable companies favoring one content provider or file-sharing company over another. Comcast has recently acknowledged that it has delayed Internet traffic of BitTorrent, a file sharing service that makes it easier for consumers to upload video files.

The hearing is being held all day Monday in the Ames courtroom at Harvard Law School, near the congressional district of Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat who as the head of a House telecommunications subcommittee recently introduced legislation intended to prevent cable and telephone companies from discriminating in the way they control broadband traffic. (The school is also the alma mater of Kevin J. Martin, the chairman of the commission.)

The legislation faces significant political obstacles and is unlikely to be adopted this year. But the debate over it has set off a fierce lobbying war.

The commission has been considering complaints made by Vuze, BitTorent and several consumer groups that Comcast has violated a policy statement issued by the commission in 2005 that permits Internet service providers to engage in “reasonable network management.” The term has become a focal point in the revived debate over what is called network neutrality.

In his written testimony, David L. Cohen, an executive vice president of Comcast, told the commissioners that the growing popularity of peer-to-peer applications was straining the network.

“Independent research has shown that it takes as few as 15 active BitTorrent users uploading content in a particular geographic area to create congestion sufficient to degrade the experience of the hundreds of other users in that area,” Cohen said. “Bandwidth-intensive activities not only degrade other less-intense uses, but also significantly interfere with thousands of Internet companies’ businesses.”

“Far from managing our network in a discriminatory way to benefit our own offerings — other than managing our network to make our high-speed Internet service faster and better — our limited network management practices ensure that everyone else’s applications and services, even those that may compete with our services and use P2P protocols, work,” Cohen said.

But Markey expressed concerns about Comcast’s practice, warning of “the transformation of BitTorrent into bit trickle.”