In Comcast vs. Verizon, Comcast is Down Two Counts

By Drew Clark

 

Dominance in the broadband market is a battle of both technology and politics. Right now Comcast, America’s leading cable company, is losing on both counts.

 

Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen emerged from the Federal Communications Commission’s hearing on Internet practices in Cambridge, Mass., as unable to defend himself and his company against charges of blocking the peer-to-peer (P2P) Internet application BitTorrent.

 

Comcast also came out looking like the kind of bullying corporation that resorts to packing the auditorium with its own employees.

 

Besides, Comcast is not a very good FOK, or Friend of Kevin — as in Kevin Martin, the chairman of the agency. Martin has done nearly everything in his power to harm Comcast and the cable industry since he took over the FCC in March 2005.

 

That political battle with the cable industry is all about a la carte, or per-channel television programming. But it comes right back to Comcast’s technological disadvantage: cable — unlike both fiber and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line service) — is a “shared service” among many consumers. The network was designed to “broadcast” video in a cable pipe, and not to facilitate large uploads by P2P users and others.

 

By contrast, Verizon Communications and its Executive Vice President Tom Tauke emerged from the hearing, held at Harvard Law School, with a squeaky-clean image. “At the current time, we have found no need to have a network management tool,” said Tauke. “We don’t have a shared network.”

 

Note even the pre-ordained and subtle digs, visible in this photograph: It is “The Honorable Tom Tauke” on the left, but merely “David L. Cohen” on the right. (Tauke received this honorific because he is a former Congressman, a Republican from Iowa.)

 

Cohen’s basic point was as follows: we don’t block P2P applications, but we do manage them by “delay[ing] the request for uploads; we don’t block it.”

 

Said Cohen:

Comcast not block web sites, applications, web protocols, including P2P services.

What we are doing is a limited form of network management, objectively based upon an excessive bandwidth consumptive protocol during limited periods of network congestion.

 

But he wouldn’t say what those “objectively based” forms of management are. No user has any way of knowing when they are exceeding the speed limit. Nor did he address the counter-arguments of Professors Yochai Benkler, of Harvard Law School, or Timothy Wu, of Columbia Law School — that delaying a BitTorrent transmission is tantamount to blocking it.

 

“Comcast has been blocking Bittorrent, and that is the end of the story,” said Wu. “That is a violation” of the FCC’s Net Neutrality principles.

 

The basic problem for Comcast is that users of P2P applications like BitTorrent do consume an extraordinary amount of bandwidth . But BitTorrent users aren’t hogging the fat, downstream pipe that cable offers. It’s the the scrawny upstream trickle that everyone is fighting over.

 

DSL service, in general, has the same “asymetrical” character, offering far greater downstream speeds than upstream speeds. But the cable modem service’s shared network compounds this problem.

 

Contrast this with the message that Tauke imparted. Given the capacity of Verizon’s fiber optic service (FiOS), “at the current time, we do not have the necessity of thwarting or curtailing traffic.” Tauke even touted Verizon’s 20/20 service, or 20 megabits downstream and 20 megabits upstream. The Bell company announced this symmetrical during the same week in which the revelations of Comcast’s BitTorrent behavior surfaced last fall.