After a hearing into Comcast Corp.'s Internet policies this week, the company faces a backlash of bad publicity and increasing skepticism about the way the telecommunications giant runs its high-speed Internet service.Critics have denounced Comcast for paying people to occupy seats in the cramped Harvard Law School lecture hall where the Federal Communications Commission hearing was held, preventing many critics from gaining admittance. Comcast officials said they were merely trying to save enough seats for company executives. But Josh Silver, executive director of the Internet activist group Free Press, said the hired guests stayed on, preventing many Comcast critics from attending the hearing.
There are about 300 seats in the lecture hall, and when they were all filled people were turned away.
"Comcast had these guys sit through the first entire half of the day to keep those seats full," Silver said.
Despite having friends in the audience, Comcast took a verbal beating at Monday's hearing, from FCC commissioners and hostile witnesses alike. The controversy over Comcast's network management policies has helped revive the once-dormant debate on "Net neutrality," the concept of forcing Internet companies to treat all data on their networks exactly alike.
Companies like Google Inc. and online video provider Vuze Inc., which use the Internet to distribute their services, say Net neutrality is vital to their businesses. But Internet providers like Comcast say there are legitimate business and technical reasons for them to offer different levels of service to different kinds of traffic.
Broadband providers designed their network for users who mostly swap e-mails and visit websites - tasks which don't transmit, or upload, very much data. So broadband systems are designed to receive, or download, data much faster than they can upload it. "We have to engineer and manage the network for typical usage of a vast majority of customers," said Mitch Bowling, Comcast's senior vice president of online services.
But these days, many Internet subscribers use peer-to-peer software that lets thousands of Internet users share large files by uploading and downloading them to each others' computers. So when a computer with BitTorrent downloads a TV show, it starts uploading the same show to other users. As a result, many Internet users now upload far more traffic than broadband providers expected. And Bowling said just a few of these users can consume most of the capacity on a neighborhood Internet "node," which may serve several hundred households.
Comcast copes with the problem by sometimes slowing down BitTorrent data uploads from its customers' computers. Last year, BitTorrent users complained about problems on the Comcast network, but the company refused to confirm the policy until last October. Comcast still insists it has done nothing wrong. "We have to engineer and manage the network for typical usage of a vast majority of customers," said Bowling. "We are simply managing the network for the greater good."
But Vuze, which filed the FCC complaint that led to Monday's hearing, uses BitTorrent to send videos to its subscribers. Comcast's policy to slow these file transfers could hurt Vuze's business. Indeed, the company argued that Comcast could use "network management" as an excuse to fend off Vuze's challenge to Comcast's cable TV business. "By degrading the high-quality video content by which Vuze differentiates itself in the marketplace, network operators can seek a competitive edge," said Vuze in its FCC complaint.
Virtually everyone who spoke at the hearing agreed that Comcast should provide far more information about how it manages its network. But there's less uniformity about whether to regulate the practice or ban it altogether.
Free Press wants Net neutrality legislation that would make it illegal for networks to discriminate against particular kinds of Internet traffic, such as BitTorrent. The group's general counsel, Marvin Ammori, said if Comcast installed better technology, it would be able to handle BitTorrent traffic with little trouble. But Comcast has said it will reduce its capital expenditures this year compared with 2007.
Comcast's Bowling said that merely improving the network won't eliminate the need to throttle back some kinds of traffic. He said peer-to-peer programs like BitTorrent tend to use more bandwidth as it becomes available, so network clutter doesn't get better with more capacity. "You can't outrun this problem by building more bandwidth," he said.
US Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who attended the hearing, favors Net neutrality, but said Comcast may have to manage its data traffic because of the way the company designed its network. The real problem, said Markey, is a lack of competition.
In most communities there are no more than two broadband providers - the cable TV company and the phone company. These companies have already attached wires to all local homes. A would-be rival would have to spend millions building wired networks of their own - a massive barrier to competition.
Markey favors an "unbundling" policy, in which the federal government would require cable and phone companies to sell wholesale access to the lines going into consumers' homes. This would let many companies get into the Internet access business without having to string their own wires.
In an unbundled world, said Markey, Net neutrality will take care of itself. Companies that discriminate against BitTorrent traffic would lose business to those that didn't. "Competition is a proxy for regulation," he said.
Markey acknowledged that Congress might not embrace his idea. But he said the only alternative is a Net neutrality law that could saddle Internet access providers with burdensome regulations. "If unbundling isn't possible," said Markey, "then Net neutrality is going to be the rule of the road."
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 Boston Globe