WASHINGTON - The Federal Communications Commission appears poised to crack down on Comcast for its practice of slowing down or blocking large file transfers, which has drawn the ire of consumer groups.FCC Chairman Kevin Martin confirmed in an e-mail that he has the necessary three votes to punish the kind of selective techniques used by Comcast to target heavy peer-to-peer file sharing through software applications such as BitTorrent.
The five-person commission is scheduled to vote Friday on an order barring Internet service providers from interfering with or blocking customer traffic. Bloomberg News quoted commission sources who said the FCC would censure but not fine Comcast for its practices, which came to light in autumn.
The fact that that FCC appears eager to police this activity cheered on network neutrality proponents, who have resisted efforts by the Internet providers to slow down traffic or charge people for higher use.
"I think it's a huge victory for consumers because it sets down a baseline principle that the FCC will act if cable or phone companies try to interfere with software and content online," said Marvin Ammori, general counsel for consumer advocate group Free Press, which filed a complaint against Comcast.
Comcast was singled out in an Associated Press story in October for blocking and slowing traffic on its network by people who were using peer-to-peer file-sharing applications.
The practice is used to share content. As a delivery tool for video, it has become a major source of bandwidth consumption and a headache for Internet providers.
Comcast initially denied it was managing traffic but later acknowledged employing limiting measures at peak times.
The company said in spring that it would move by the end of the year to a new method that did not target an application such as BitTorrent but slowed down any extreme use at peak times.
Sena Fitzmaurice, a spokeswoman for Comcast, said companies need to manage their networks to ensure that all users have a good experience.
"We've consistently said it's not a problem you can build your way out of," she said.
"You need to manage traffic or it will take as much space as you build. You need network management to make sure the network can handle the traffic in a way that works."
Fitzmaurice said she's still waiting for the FCC order to know what implications it will have for Comcast and other Internet providers. It's unclear if it will target only Comcast's current strategy, which will be abandoned by the end of this year, and will allow Comcast's broader management approach, and if so how will it be implemented. Even the question of the FCC's authority is at issue.
The commission signed a set of net neutrality principles in 2005 but it's not clear if they could serve as the basis for enforcement of traffic management. Martin, however, does not question the FCC's authority.
"I am pleased that a majority has agreed that the commission both has the authority to, and in fact will, stop broadband service providers when they block or interfere with subscribers' access," Martin said in a statement.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle