Comcast’s Traffic Management Practices

There is an interesting article on ARS Technica about Comcast’s FCC filing regarding its practices of secretly filtering network traffic. For those of you not up on the latest news, the FCC has been investigating Comcast’s network management practices after Vuze objected to Comcast’s practices of degrading P2P connections.

The article gives a really nice explanation of what is actually going on. It’s also some good reading for people who don’t know how Comcast actually structures its network (ie. what your neighbors are doing makes a big difference on your network speed).

The basic problem here is that Comcast oversells its network on the premise that nobody will use all of it. When a few customers actually attempt to use all of the bandwidth, the whole thing chokes. So instead of actually upgrading its network, Comcast filters out the traffic using lots of bandwidth (read P2P traffic).

While overselling is nothing new, what Comcast does strikes me detrimental to everyone. The main problem is that when the internet became popular, networks were designed for mostly downloading content. Most people were consumers, a few were providers. Todays internet, is different. P2P networks are more prevalent. YouTube is huge. The dynamic has shifted. More people are now providers, and more importantly, this trend will continue. Eventually, internet providers will have to restructure their networks to account for this change. Filtering content is only a stopgap.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that Comcast should limit the amount of bandwidth that individuals can use. But if this is to be the rule, there needs to be a lot more transparency in the matter. Consumers need to be informed of what is the bandwidth cap for each service plan is. There also needs to be an easily accessible method for consumers to track their bandwidth usage. Most importantly, Comcast should notify consumers when they are filtering their packets, instead of just sending TCP reset packets.

If consumers have the actual information to make informed decisions, the market will decide whether or not this strategy is okay. This is of course, assuming that consumers do actually have alternative providers and that the ISP market is actually a fair market. Yeah right. Score one for corporate welfare.

Update: Upon further consideration, I’d like to clarify my point about it being okay for Comcast (or anyone) to filter internet content. What I actually meant, was that I think it is okay for an ISP to filter or lessen high-volume traffic from individual sources, provided that there is sufficient transparency in the matter. ISP’s certainly need to start selling what they can actually provide, but they also should be able to keep some users from adversely affecting others.

I do not under any circumstances support the filtering of traffic based on content. This is not the job or role that ISPs should be in the business of playing.

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