Previous amends notwithstanding

Comcast is on the hot seat again: FCC Chairman Kevin Martin issued a damning order (PDF) against the ISP, condemning it for its controversial “network management” practices and ordering it to stop.

“Would you be OK with the post office opening your mail, deciding they didn’t want to bother delivering it, and hiding that fact by sending it back to you stamped ‘address unknown – return to sender’?” asked Martin in a statement. “Or if they opened letters mailed to you, decided that because the mail truck is full sometimes, letters to you could wait, and then hid both that they read your letters and delayed them?”

“Unfortunately, that is exactly what Comcast was doing with [its] subscribers’ Internet traffic,” he said.

The FCC says that Comcast’s network practices “contravene” the FCC’s task of protecting the “vibrant and open nature” of the Internet.

“The Commission concluded that Comcast’s network management practices discriminate among applications rather than treating all equally and are inconsistent with the concept of an open and accessible Internet. Indeed, the Commission noted that Comcast has an anticompetitive motive to interfere with customers’ use of peer-to-peer applications,” reads an FCC press release. “The Commission also concluded that Comcast’s practices are not minimally intrusive, as the company claims, but rather are invasive and have significant effects … In essence, Comcast opens its customers’ mail because it wants to deliver mail not based on the address on the envelope but on the type of letter contained therein.”

The order came despite Comcast’s stated intent to reform its practices. The company promised last March to end its policy of “data discrimination” sometime before the end of the year – a timetable that Martin previously questioned on its initial announcement – as well as also announced collaborations with content-delivery experts Pando Networks to build a “P2P Bill of Rights”. It is even working directly with BitTorrent’s inventors to further optimize the protocol.

Comcast’s official response called the FCC “sharply divided,” but then went on to praise the order’s lack of a fine and enforcement of Comcast’s “self-imposed deadline.” The press release goes on to state that the majority of its P2P customers – which represent about 7% of its subscriber base – are “unaffected” by the company’s network management, and that it recently “doubled and in many cases tripled”  the upload speeds for its customers at no additional charge.

The FCC order gives Comcast 30 days to implement its conditions, lest the company face “interim injunctive relief” should it fail to comply. These conditions compel Comcast to:

  • Disclose to the FCC details on its “network management”  practices,
  • Submit to the FCC a “compliance plan,” outlining specifically what it intends to do to stop those practices, and how it will do so by the end of the year,
  • Disclose to the public specifically what network policies it will replace its questionable practices with.

Over the past year, Comcast’s relationship with the FCC could be best characterized as acrimonious; the company spent much effort to defend its practices, sometimes to seemingly adversarial confrontations. All of this came to a head shortly after the March announcement, when Martin received a nasty letter from Comcast VP David Cohen that questioned Martin’s competence in understanding the way Comcast ran its network: “Your response,” wrote Cohen, “repeated erroneous characterizations of Comcast’s network management practices … that we have taken great pains to clarify on multiple occasions.”

Despite its controversy, Comcast remains the second largest Internet Service Provider in the United States, trailing DSL rival AT&T by less than a million subscribers.

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