Earlier this week, the FCC made it official (PDF) and ordered U.S. cable operator Comcast to end discriminatory network management practices that deliberately blocked certain types of network use by its customers. In Comcast’s case, this means peer-to-peer file-sharing applications like BitTorrent and Gnutella; during periods of network congestion, last year Comcast was revealed by the Associated Press to be forging reset packets that would shut down customers’ fire-sharing sessions. After months of claims, counter-claims, spin control, and even attempts to stack FCC hearings in its favor, the FCC ruled Comcast’s “network management” practices violated FCC’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement (PDF) that essentially gives consumers the right to use any legal application and access any legal service they like. Network providers may engage in “reasonable,” transparent network management practices, but can’t just decide to shut down particular types of application traffic.
Under the FCC’s order, Comcast has 30 days to disclose its “unreasonable” network management practices and offer a plan for how it intends to comply with FCC mandates. Industry watchers widely expect Comcast to challenge the FCC order, arguing the FCC is exceeding its authority and that the agency’s “Internet Policy Statement” does not carry the force of federal regulations.
Nonetheless, Comcast has begun testing “protocol-agnostic” networking management systems it hopes to begin deploying by the end of it 2008. The new system would effectively restrict bandwidth access during times of peak traffic for period of up to 20 minutes at a time. When Comcast’s network becomes congested, the bandwidth available to the heaviest users on that particular network segment would be reduced. The network wouldn’t shut down entirely for those users, but would instead degrade to a significantly lower level of bandwidth for a limited period of time, and the limitation would apply to all types of network traffic, not just selected applications like file-sharing services. Comcast refers to the new technology as a means to “de-prioritize” traffic for its heaviest users during times of peak congestion.
The system is currently being tested in areas of Pennsylvania and Virginia, with expansion planned for selected communities in Florida and Colorado.