Comcast gets another mouthful

What are the words of the day at the FCC’s headquarters? President Reagan’s famous maxim: “trust but verify.” So goes the Commission’s approach towards whipping-boy Comcast, who – despite Comcast’s own inroads towards a path of redemption – still appears to be not good enough in FCC Chairman Martin’s narrowed eyes.

Quick note: that Reagan quote is the FCC’s words (PDF), not mine.

Now, the FCC wants specific details on Comcast’s stated “compliance plan,” right down to the nitty-gritty: specifically requested are the “precise contours” of the “network management practices at issue” – read: data discrimination – including names, dates, and the thresholds set on all of the various network equipment it used, as well as a specific list protocols it affected.

This order comes hot off the heels of the FCC’s August 1 announcement, in which Martin & Co. shot Comcast with frowny glances and a wagging finger. It demanded, on threat of “interim injunctive relief,” specific details on Comcast’s network management practices, as well as the aforementioned “compliance plan” with specific details on data discrimination’s successor. While I initially wrote that Comcast’s August 20 announcement appears to have satisfied the FCC’s demands, I now know that I was wrong: Comcast left out a number of important details – things like the specific thresholds necessary to trigger bandwidth throttling – that the FCC immediately pointed out.

(Indeed, judging by the timing of both the FCC’s and Comcast’s announcements – they both released on the same day – I consider it possible that one announcement was written without knowledge of the other.)

With Comcast’s new plan of throttling individual bandwidth hogs and its reported consideration of everywhere-else-but-the-USA style bandwidth caps, however, I can’t help but wonder if we’re heading down collision course of sorts: on one side, there are a number of content providers pushing Video-on-Demand via the World Wide Web – like Microsoft's Xbox 360 and its just-announced Netflix integration, for instance, or Hulu, or Joost. On the other side, we have ISPs testing metered bandwidth caps with abhorrently low allowances, like 5 or 20 gigabytes a month.

If both of those paths follow their course, I predict we’re going to have a big problem just as soon as WWW-based VOD hits critical mass: Johnny Gamer is going to use his Xbox 360 to happily burn through his entire Netflix queue on some large, long-running show like 24 or Stargate SG-1 – throw in a couple of movies for kicks – and he’ll open his mailbox to discover a truly massive bandwidth bill. The issue will blow up as soon as it’s featured on The Consumerist, and pretty soon we’ll have the FCC writing another set of nasty letters, this time about ISPs’ attempts to monopolize their TV businesses via discriminatory bandwidth allotments. (A similar battle already played out between telco/ISP hybrids and VOIP providers, although in at least one case it ended on a positive note.)

Worse, some of these online TV providers seem to be gunning for complete replacement of the traditional TV setup, and with the ongoing convergence of hardware and software I see this as a possible reality within the next couple of years. Those of us without any TV service – like me, and yes I am quite happy that way – may already be getting our fix through online services, illicit or not. I, for example, like to catch up on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s latest on Hulu. I haven’t metered my usage, but I prefer watching my shows in 480p, and the high-quality stuff that I like to streamrip off of YouTube and other Flash-based players is usually pretty large, especially when the video file in question is long.

We haven’t even begun to explore the other ways one can blow their bandwidth cap: A friend of mine currently lives and works in the Middle East, and with her paltry bandwidth allotment she refuses to buy games from services like Steam or Stardock Central; instead, she'll usually wait until she can purchase hard copies at the local commissary.

All in all, it’s an interesting time to be an American internet user, doubly so if you’re with Comcast. ISPs seem to be doing everything they can to put a lid on subscribers’ growing bandwidth consumption, and subscribers are finding more and more ways to put the crimp on ISPs. Where are we headed?

"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

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