Comcast's P2P Conversion: I'll Believe It When I See Results

Is Comcast serious about making nice with the “peer to peer” technology crowd? That would seem to be the case given the deal announced yesterday with BitTorrent Inc., in which the cable giant agreed to stop throttling the performance of heavy P2P users during peak times, and instead pledged to invest in the bandwidth and technologies to be able to handle that traffic. Says BitTorrent CEO Ashwin Navin: “It’s a great day for us. A lot of good can come out of this.” I think that may well be true—somewhere down the line. For now, it’s pretty clear that this conversion is more about solving a nasty PR problem, than in truly working with P2P providers to better handle the rising tide of online video traffic. Clearly, Comcast needs to calm down critics—including at the FCC—who’ve had a field day since the Associated Press revealed last Fall that Comcast was throttling the bandwidth to heavy P2P users during peak times. And BitTorrent was the most convenient partner through which to make such a move. “Comcast has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar, and they’re trying to quickly close the book on the issue,” says Gilles BianRosa, CEO of P2P rival Vuze Inc., which filed a complaint with the FCC last year seeking new rules on how ISPs can manage traffic over their networks. “Just putting out a press release doesn’t push the envelope too much.” Om Malik was similarly suspicious. And FCC chairman Kevin Martin says he’s watching to make sure words are followed by action. More after the break:

Why such cynicism about the deal with BitTorrent? For starters, the company is a known quantity to Comcast. BitTorrent president Ashwin Navin says the company has been having talks with Comcast technologists about they could use P2P to their advantage for the past 2.5 years, and a year ago Comcast CTO Tony Werner joined BitTorrent’s advisory board. Also, BitTorrent certainly has the right name, since it may lead some to make more of the deal than really exists. That's because BitTorrent is the name of the most commonly used software protocol used to distribute P2P traffic. But while BitTorrent, the company, invented the underlying protocol, it's only one of many that make software that work with this standard. Vuze, for example, has created programs (mostly a client called Azureus) that have been downloaded more than 160 million times. Navin is quick to admit that politics played a major role in Comcast’s turnaround. While his company may have been in talks with Comcast for 2.5 years, it didn’t find out about Comcast’s throttling policy until the rest of the world did. Indeed, BitTorrent has supported Vuze’s petition with the FCC. Rather, Comcast only got serious about partnering with BitTorrent in the aftermath of amajor PR debacle. Not only did its surreptitious throttling create a prime-rib of an issue for the Net Neutrality crowd to bite into, but Comcast's clumsy efforts to deny or at least downplay the significance only made matters worse. That led to an FCC hearing in January, in which FCC Chairman Martin vowed to consider regulations on network management techniques.

Worse, telecom rival Verizon has since stolen the high-ground on this issue. Just days ago, the AP broke news that the phone giant has not only been partnering with P2P players, but had done research that suggests the collaboration can vastly improve download speeds for its broadband customers. With Verizon now out telling millions of young, Net savvy P2P users that it's on their side, Comcast can ill afford to stand still. But if Comcast was serious, a greater symbol of sincerity would have been to reach out to Vuze, given that it was the company that filed the FCC petition. From the start, Vuze CEO BianRosa (who, by the way, is a former McKinsey consultant—not some wise-acre whippersnapper out to build a business on piracy), made it clear he hoped the pressure would lead to more fruitful talks with Comcast. “From day one, we’ve said that cooperation is required,” he says.

Regardless of the depth of Comcast's P2P conversion, yesterday’s news is a welcome step forward. At least Comcast will end its efforts to demonize P2P. I certainly understand the temptation. By some counts, P2P consumes as much as 60% of all consumer traffic—and carriers don’t currently charge extra beyond normal monthly bills.

But ask the technical experts, and they'll tell you that P2P technology has a critical role to play if Internet video really is going to become truly mainstream. By letting the world's PCs store vast amounts of video content, P2P can lighten the bandwidth load for content owners, who would otherwise have to pay much higher costs to pipe that fare direct to all of our living rooms. That's why many P2P companies have been quietly bought up by the likes of Verisign, Cisco and others in recent years

Even if tech experts have noticed P2P's promise, until recently the general perception of the technology among the Net-using public is still that defined for it by Napster, which used P2P approaches to become the first mainstream piracy site in the late 1990s (not the public company that bears that name today, which sells licensed music).

Ironically, I think Comcast may have done more than any PR campaign could have done to revamp P2P's brand-—from a weapon used by bandwidth-hogging online pirates, into a tool that all law-abiding consumers should be free to benefit from. Truth is, technologies are a lot like political revolutions: they're often dismissed by the prevailing powers as unreliable, under-powered and un-economical--until they prevail in the marketplace. Think PC vs. mainframe, Linux vs. Unix and Windows, and even cable versus broadcast back in the 1970s. We may well look back one day and see Comcast's conversion as a major milestone in the evolution of P2P. “The elephant in the room is that people are using P2P to watch long-form content—because it’s a very powerful platform for the job,” says Bianrosa. “More people are starting to realize this.”

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