Comcast Calls on Vonage

7/11/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

Comcast, continuing its campaign to show that the private sector can address Internet-management issues without government intervention, last week announced a “collaborative agreement” with Vonage Holdings to ensure the cable operator’s network-management techniques don’t disrupt the voice-over-Internet provider’s services.

The cable company has drawn scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission for its practice of throttling back BitTorrent file transfers, which also raised the ire of “network neutrality” advocates who oppose such targeted discrimination.

The BitTorrent episode led Comcast to announce in March that it would move to a “protocol-agnostic” network management approach by the end of 2008, and the MSO has embarked on three technical trials on this front.

“This collaboration with Vonage, and our outreach to many key participants in the Internet community, demonstrate that we are committed to provide network management solutions that benefit consumers and competition,” Comcast chief technology officer Tony Werner said in a statement.

TIMELINE: Comcast’s Net Travails
The nation’s top MSO has wrestled with the net neutrality issue:
SOURCE: Multichannel News research
Oct. 2007: AP reports that Comcast “blocks” certain BitTorrent file-upload attempts.
Jan. 2008: FCC announces investigation into Comcast’s peer-to-peer throttling practices.
March 2008: Comcast says it will work with BitTorrent and others, to move to a “protocol-agnostic” bandwidth management approach by the end of 2008.
June 2008: MSO details plans to test protocol-neutral bandwidth management platforms in three markets.
July 2008: Comcast announces partnership with Vonage to ensure voice-over-IP services work well.

Vonage CTO Louis Mamakos said, “Although we’re competitors with Comcast, this understanding helps our two companies work together to balance the needs of network management with consumers’ ability to freely access the services, applications and content of their choice.”

As for what the Comcast-Vonage partnership will actually produce, details are vague.

Comcast said it has “committed to work together with Vonage” to ensure that network-management techniques the cable company uses to reduce congestion are balanced with “the need to ensure that over-the-top VoIP services like Vonage work well for consumers.”

Scott Cleland, a telecom analyst and head of anti-net neutrality group, wrote in a blog posting that the partnership between Comcast and Vonage is “more tangible and compelling evidence that market forces continue to work well in meeting consumers’ needs — and that there is no market failure for the FCC to address with stifling net neutrality regulation.”

But network-neutrality proponents are unlikely to be convinced such cooperation obviates the need for federal legal protections.

When Comcast said it would work with BitTorrent, Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of consumer-rights group Public Knowledge, said agreements among private companies were irrelevant to the issues.

“The FCC has the responsibility to protect the rights of consumers against discriminatory network-management practices,” Sohn said in a statement. “Any future agreements in the private sector do not change that reality, particularly if the companies involved reach agreements that work specifically with some technologies or network companies and not with others.”

Holmdel, N.J.-based Vonage has continued to add subscribers — its rolls rose to 2.6 million at the end of March — but it’s adding them at a slower pace than in the past. The company has also gone through several rounds of patent litigation, settling disputes with Verizon Communications, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and Nortel Networks last year.

Comcast, meanwhile, reported 5.1 million voice customers for the quarter ended in March, more than double the year-earlier period.

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