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Comcast Changes Tune, Won't Block Large Files; Critics Pleased, But Skeptical

By Ryan Kim

SAN FRANCISCO -- Comcast Corp. promised Thursday that it would not discriminate against specific Internet traffic on its network, ending its controversial practice of targeting and blocking file-sharing technologies from San Francisco's BitTorrent Inc. and others.

The nation's largest cable TV and Internet provider said it would work with BitTorrent and other companies offering peer-to-peer file-sharing services to come up with improved ways to speed large files efficiently. Comcast said it would still manage traffic during peak periods but by year's end would not block specific applications - a recent practice that prompted federal scrutiny and pressure.

"This means that we will have to rapidly reconfigure our network management systems, but the outcome will be a traffic management technique that is more appropriate for today's emerging Internet trends," Tony Werner, Comcast's chief technology officer, said in a statement.

The decision amounts to a reversal for Comcast, which had been accused of limiting or blocking uploads of large files over BitTorrent during peak periods. An Associated Press investigation last fall into Comcast's practices prompted an investigation and a hearing by the Federal Communications Commission this year. Comcast has defended its practice of maintaining smooth traffic delivery.

BitTorrent, for its part, is acknowledging Comcast's right to manage data usage and is working on its end to optimize its technology to work with broadband networks. Eric Klinker, chief technology officer of BitTorrent, applauded Comcast's move, saying it puts Comcast on the road to a more open and neutral Internet that is beneficial to all users.

"An agnostic approach is huge for the Internet, for innovation and Silicon Valley," Klinker said. "There are a lot of businesses booming in this corridor that fundamentally depend on this principle."

Bernstein Research analyst Jeffrey Lindsay said the deal means BitTorrent would likely identify its data transfers to Comcast, so the cable company wouldn't have to go through the trouble of tracking them. The two companies would then agree on a way to shift some of those large file transfers to off-peak hours, ensuring that non-peer-to-peer users won't experience a slowdown in service, he said.

Lindsay said the deal between Comcast and BitTorrent helps skirt the larger issue of so-called network neutrality by having both companies work together to free up capacity.

"A lot of people are transferring files that are not time-critical," Lindsay said. "It's better to push the use of P2P to off-peak times where they can have more capacity. That's a good use of resources that we don't think will interfere with P2P users."

Open Internet advocates are skeptical of Comcast's change of heart and believe that the federal government still needs to develop regulations that protect Net neutrality. Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press, a media reform organization, said the announcement doesn't prevent future blocking of traffic or protect emerging innovative applications.

"Innovators should not have to negotiate side deals with phone and cable companies to operate without discrimination. The Internet has always been a level playing field, and we need to keep it that way," Ammori said in a statement.

Under the agreement, both Comcast and BitTorrent will publish their techniques and efforts, so users will be able to know when Comcast's management tools will be applied. The companies will also engage other service providers and technology companies to develop more efficient networks and applications.

The FCC will continue to monitor Comcast and ensure that Internet users continue to have access to legitimate content, Chairman Kevin Martin said. The commission will hold a hearing April 17 at Stanford to discuss reasonable network management practices.

Martin said he is still unhappy with Comcast's current practices and called on the company to announce exactly when it plans to end them.

"While it may take time to implement its preferred new traffic management technique, it is not at all obvious why Comcast couldn't stop its current practice of arbitrarily blocking its broadband customers from using certain applications," Martin said in a statement.

© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle

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