Users to Comcast: Hands Off

The company's slower Web transmission speeds for some content spark a legal challenge

Comcast's advertisements have long promoted "mind-blowing" transmission speeds on its broadband system. But the cable giant's efforts to throttle back some of the biggest users of its fiber-optic pipes are raising fundamental questions about control of the Internet.

The long-running feud was reignited by an Oct. 19 Associated Press report claiming Comcast (CMCSA ) has interfered with particular sorts of bandwidth-hogging traffic. Within days, consumer groups lodged a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission seeking to force Comcast to stop. And on Nov. 13, San Francisco Comcast subscriber Jon Hart filed a lawsuit claiming a litany of charges, from breach of contract to computer fraud. The suit asks that Comcast pay damages to subscribers who got less than the blazing speeds Comcast promoted.

At issue is how Comcast treats peer-to-peer traffic, so called because it is passed among millions of PCs rather than by way of a company's servers. Those PCs are owned by people who agree to share their bandwidth in return for access to a network's diverse content. Some Web experts estimate that peer-to-peer traffic accounts for more than half of U.S. Internet bandwidth use.

Comcast is accused of sometimes slowing down or blocking traffic that uses the BitTorrent peer-to-peer networking technology, which is used to distribute everything from legitimate computer programs to pirated movies.

Comcast denies it has blocked any traffic outright but admits it uses "network management" techniques to delay peer-to-peer traffic when it causes congestion in a certain area. The company says that's the only way to ensure transmission speeds don't slow to a crawl for others. "What we're doing is pro-consumer because we're protecting the many users whose experience is degraded by heavy peer-to-peer congestion," says spokesman Charlie Douglas.


The controversy strikes at the heart of the Net-neutrality debate. Proponents of Net neutrality say network operators shouldn't be allowed to regulate the flow of information on their broadband systems, especially when it competes with their own offerings, such as videos. Some network operators, on the other hand, hint that they'd like to charge sites or studios extra for guaranteed fast delivery of bandwidth-intensive content. They see peer-to-peer as excessive use of the network when participants clog things up with industrial-strength data files while paying only a household cable bill.

Never far from a conversation about peer-to-peer networks is the topic of piracy. A huge percentage of ripped-off movies, songs, and TV shows are sent using the technology. But for a half-decade, peer-to-peer also has been used by companies like Red Hat (RHAT ) and Sun Microsystems (JAVA ) to distribute large software programs. And companies such as Joost, Vuze, and even BitTorrent--whose founder created the communications standard of that name--have struck deals to use peer-to-peer to distribute high-definition videos by dozens of mainline content owners, such as CBS (CBS ), PBS, and Viacom's (VIA ) Showtime.

Take Vuze. The Palo Alto (Calif.) company was founded by the engineers who created Azureus, the most popular peer-to-peer tool for sending video files--many pirated--over networks. In January the company launched a site for the express purpose of distributing legally licensed content. So far some 13 million people have downloaded the Vuze player--more than 2 million in October alone, the company claims. The site offers mostly obscure fare appealing to the college crowd, such as sci-fi fantasies and outdoorsy reality shows. But deals with Showtime and PBS show that mainstream media is catching on.

Peer-to-peer technology can speed the delivery of data and cut distribution costs. Rather than send the show Weeds to each user via its own servers, Showtime could use Vuze to distribute copies to thousands of PCs owned by people who have downloaded its software and agreed to be transmission nodes. The next person who requests the show gets it in chunks from others. And Showtime doesn't have to pay for as much bandwidth as it might have.

A year ago, when Vuze began seeing increased filtering by Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, it started using a thin layer of encryption code in its software to disguise its content. Taken to its extreme, this could make it impossible for any network or movie studio--even law enforcement--to know what's moving over the Internet. Vuze also filed a petition with the FCC on Nov. 14, asking the agency to set rules about what ISPs can and can't do to filter traffic and to require them to disclose their policies and tactics.

The complaint echoes the arguments of Net-neutrality advocates, who are using Comcast as a rallying point. "Too many people have relegated this to piracy when even more it's about the future of innovation," says Fred von Lohmann, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If you're trying to build a video service that might compete with Comcast, it's very difficult to do that when they're altering the network and not telling you how they're doing it."

Vuze CEO Gilles BianRosa hopes his petition will lead to talks between the ISPs and the peer-to-peer crowd. After all, he says, Comcast and its ilk clearly aren't keeping up with consumer demand if they have to limit data flow. And no one denies that peer-to-peer is a powerful means of distribution. Says BianRosa: "It's a case of help us help you."

By Peter Burrows

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.