Comcast Responds

Before he called it quits for the week, Comcast CTO Tony Werner got on the phone with me for one more round of damage control. He’d read my previous post. So when I thanked him for the opportunity, he was ready. “I’m glad to do it. I’ve got time for one more thrashing.”

It sounds like he’s been doing more than take press calls. He says he’s been reaching out to various technology providers and others that can help the firm accomplish its plan to move away from protocol throttling, and instead slow down speeds of the heaviest users during peak periods of congestion. He says he’s been talking with executives from Cisco, Vonage and Google, as well as P2P companies other than BitTorrent. For example, he’d spoken with Pando CEO Robert Levitan, and hoped to talk to Vuze Inc. early next week.

Here’s highlights of our conversation, in Q&A form (I’ve edited down my questions):

Q: So has Comcast had a change of heart about P2P?

A: All of this got characterized as Comcast vs Bit Torrent. That wasn’t our intention, and it wasn’t really fair…Three or four years ago, most of the ISPs around the world started to manage traffic (as volumes, particularly of P2P, began to rise). It had become clear that you simply can’t build your way out [of the problem by adding more capacity, since you’ll always hit periods of congestion. He argues that even in Japan, where many consumers have 100 mbps connections, the networks get congested)…It wasn’t like Comcast alone came up with this idea.

Q: If you’re not going to throttle back P2P traffic, which traffic will you throttle during periods of congestion?

A: Given all the scrutiny, we began looking for ways to change our software and processes to focus on different attributes, and we think we have a solution. Rather than focus on aggressive protocols, we will look at the .5 to 2% of users that are using significant amounts of bandwidth at that time.

Q: How much will performance be slowed down for these heavy users? What will the effect be like?

A: It will be pretty subtle, and pretty infrequent. When we find network element that’s congested, .usually 5% to 2% of users are using over 50% of the bandwidth. And it’s not usually the same people every day. And to [de-congest the network], they can usually still take up 20-25% [of the bandwidth].

Q: Comcast has said it hopes to stop throttling P2P traffic by the end of the year, rather than stop it right away. Why?

A: Most of the people we’ve talked to think it would [be a very bad idea to turn it off now].It would be like turning off every traffic light in Philadelphia just before rush hour, and hoping there aren’t any accidents.

Q: Do you think Comcast should have done anything differently from a PR perspective, to avoid all of the backlash?

A: Having the benefit of hindsight is always helpful. If I could rewind the clock, I perhaps would do a lot of things differently. But this is so complex, and its so hard to defend yourself when you’ve got so many people with so many agendas. The one thing we’ve learned—and should have done better on-is that we thought we were being transparent…But the point we’re trying to make is that this is complicated stuff, and the technology evolves rapidly….We think its best for businesses to work together and for the Internet community to work together. We don’t think its effective for government to get involved, because by the time they fix this problem we will have [been confronted] with something else.

Q: Why didn’t you approach Vuze first, since it was the firm that brought the action against Comcast with the FCC?

A: We’ve been trying to talk with them, and we should have a call with them early next week. We’ve got to get them on board, because they’re very vocal—and I want to make sure they’re in. I think once they hear us out, they’re going to like what we’re doing. But then, I’m an optimisit.

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