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Network interference

By punishing Comcast, the FCC will send a signal to Internet providers about customer traffic.

July 31, 2008

Federal regulators are poised to slap the corporate wrist of Comcast, the nation's leading cable operator and second-largest broadband provider, for interfering surreptitiously and deceptively with its customers' use of BitTorrent, a popular program for sharing files online. The action by the Federal Communications Commission, expected to be made official Friday, comes months after Comcast pledged to stop singling out BitTorrent when managing its broadband customers' traffic. Nevertheless, the commission's stance is significant and welcome.

The ruckus began last fall, when tests showed that Comcast was blocking some BitTorrent uploads in a way that hid the interference and its source. BitTorrent is a file-sharing program favored by movie and software pirates, but it's also used for legal video sales and other legitimate services. The software is so popular, researchers have estimated that a third or more of all Internet traffic comes from BitTorrent transfers. In response, some Internet providers have tried to limit the use of BitTorrent and other file-sharing applications in the hope of reducing congestion on their networks.

It's one thing to manage a network, but it's another to take actions that prevent the market -- that is, Internet users -- from deciding who wins and loses online. That's why the FCC adopted a policy almost three years ago declaring that the public is entitled to use whatever lawful applications and services it chooses, and to access any lawful content. Comcast violated that policy by disrupting services such as Vuze, which uses BitTorrent to distribute the movies, TV shows and clips it has licensed. Online video sites may be no threat to Comcast's cable offerings today. But they could become real competitors over the next decade, as millions of broadband users connect their television sets to the Net. By barring Comcast and other Internet providers from fighting congestion with techniques that mislead consumers or discriminate against certain applications, the FCC will send an extremely important signal about how to manage networks without skewing the market for products and services.

Opponents complain that punishing Comcast would amount to regulating the Internet, as if the Net were somehow beyond the reach of federal statutes. It's true that the FCC's expected action would limit Internet providers' options for controlling traffic. But the "bandwidth hogs" they blame for much of the congestion problem won't be deterred by trying to interdict BitTorrent or other bandwidth-intensive applications. It's too easy for software developers, who pump out scores of new or updated applications daily, to evade obstacles on the network.

In fact, by some estimates, BitTorrent traffic has been overtaken by video streaming from the likes of YouTube and Hulu. And when streaming sites upgrade to high-definition video, they'll pose an even greater challenge to Internet providers. One possible response would be for broadband providers to add capacity, but they face the same problem that historically bedeviled highway engineers: When they add more room, the demand quickly expands to test the new limits.

That's why it makes sense to manage heavy users by making them pay more for their outsized appetites for data, possibly by selling bandwidth in tiers. Such a broad and neutral approach wouldn't run afoul of the FCC. Granted, DSL and cable-modem providers have so little competition today that they might set unreasonably low bandwidth limits in order to collect ample fees for excess usage. That risk will fade, however, as more wireless companies enter the broadband market. And it's a less frightening prospect than having Internet providers secretly play favorites among applications.

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