The Internet was set alight last October, when news broke out that
actively interfered with P2P traffic. Nasty
words flew back and forth. Lawsuits
were filed. Even the FCC joined the party, kicking
off its own investigation early last January.
Fast forward to last Tuesday, when Comcast answered the FCC’s
inquiries with an 80
page reply (PDF) that explained the company’s rationale behind
its definition of “reasonable network management:”
“Notwithstanding the enormous
capacity and flexibility of the cable infrastructure, there are (and
always will be) some throughput limitations. Thus, the question is
not whether all customers will be able to use shared bandwidth
indiscriminately… but, rather, how to optimize every
customer’s online experience and ability to … use all Internet
applications and services.”
Fair enough. Other parts of the document point out that Comcast is
more concerned with making sure that their average users can surf the
web proper, as opposed to placating the desires of a “vocal
minority of users who make the most noise.”
Right there, however, Comcast’s logic falls apart. A quarter of
the way through the document – Page 14, according to Acrobat –
Comcast defers to the testimony of Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who
says that “P2P applications are designed to consume as much
bandwidth as is available, thus more capacity only results in more
So that much is true – but just as true are the numerous other
protocols and applications that are also bandwidth intensive.
Almost every other non-streaming application works because of similar
goals: using as much bandwidth as necessary to obtain optimal
results. In some cases, bandwidth requirements are minimal, like in
online chat applications. In other cases, however, saturating a
user’s limited pipe simply isn’t fast enough, as you simply
cannot escape the fact that downloading a file or streaming a high
quality video requires a comparatively large amount of data. There
are many, many bandwidth hogs out there that are just as good, if not
better, at “clogging the tubes” than BitTorrent and its ilk.
Look at Windows Update: every time Microsoft drops a big patch on
the Windows masses, literally hundreds of millions of computers
throughout the world will compete for space to download it – and it
is quite often very large: a
2005 estimate from Chris St. Amand of the Microsoft Operations
team pegged Windows update traffic at 10-15 gigabits per second
from the main download center during peak periods.
Comcast users represent a significant chunk of that number, being
that the ISP is currently the #2 provider of Internet services in the
United States. Where’s Comcast stepping in to manage its
subscribers’ use of Windows Update?
The point I’m trying to make here is that BitTorrent isn’t the
only bandwidth demon that haunts ISPs, and for Comcast and
Congresswoman Bono Mack to accuse it of consuming “as much
bandwidth as possible,” without mentioning many of the other
applications that do as well, is obfuscating the real issue: that
Internet consumption is expanding faster than ISPs would like it to.
Services like BitTorrent, and other P2P apps, have a legitimate
place in today’s and tomorrow’s Internet. A number of progressive
companies – Blizzard Entertainment, Joost, and others – use
BitTorrent, or BitTorrent-like systems, to offload content away from
the old guard of expensive, centralized client-server models and
towards newer, P2P models. While this model does introduce an extra
burden on the ISPs, I would think that ISPs should be responding to
the needs of their customers, and not the other way around.
Food for thought: if Comcast invested all the money spent on
excessive “network management” towards expanding the weak points
of its infrastructure, how much further would the company be? How
much further would the quality of our Internet service be? Instead of
cracking down on protocols that Comcast deems unworthy, wouldn’t it
be easier to promise – and enforce – a usable minimum of
bandwidth to subscribers, and allow the rest of the pipe to be a
You can tell that Comcast is on the defensive. In the places where
its response to the FCC isn’t littered with narcissistic praise, it
constantly qualifies its “network management” practices with
words like “little” or “minor” or “reasonable,” and
there’s always an emphasis on the well-being of “all” users.
Frequently these qualifiers appear italicized for emphasis. Don’t
get me wrong, I’m all for reasonable network management –
and indeed Comcast names many examples of reasonable network
management in other companies – but none of those definitions
include Comcast’s, who thinks that injecting forged disconnect
packets into P2P sessions is “reasonable.”
Comcast contends that its practices are necessary so that it can
stay viable in an intensely competitive – hah!
– industry. I am officially calling shenanigans on this claim. I
think Comcast is unwilling to further invest in its infrastructure’s
weak points despite its considerable
financial growth in 2007, and that it is unwilling to support an
Internet that is growing faster than its master plan.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus
once wrote that “nothing endures but change.” Comcast, just like
most any big company, is simply fighting change – and all the
disruptions that come with it.
But we all know what
happens when you fight
quote: As my other post indicates, the estimate comes from a hardware vendor of traffic monitoring equipment; it's not a figure pulled out of a hat.
quote: Peer-to-peer applications account for between 50 percent and 90 percent of overall Internet traffic, according to a survey this year by ipoque GmbH, a German vendor of traffic-management equipment.