Squeeze Put on Comcast

2/29/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

The way Comcast parcels out bandwidth to file-swapping Internet applications has elicited the scrutiny of New York’s attorney general and prompted a second lawsuit from a purportedly disgruntled subscriber.

The office of New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has requested documents from Comcast related to its practice of throttling back the bandwidth available to users of BitTorrent and similar capacity-sapping file-sharing applications during periods of congestion.

Jeffrey Lerner, Cuomo’s director of communications, would not say what information it asked for or describe the purpose of the probe. “All I’ve said on the record and all I’ll continue to say is, we’ve requested information from the company via subpoena,” he said.

“Comcast has been cooperating with the New York State Attorney General’s office and will continue to do so,” senior director of corporate communications and government affairs Sena Fitzmaurice said, also declining to provide details on the inquiry.

The brouhaha over the issue erupted after the Associated Press last October reported Comcast was blocking and delaying traffic generated by BitTorrent. The AP story led public-interest groups and law professors to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, which is now also investigating the issue.

Last week, FCC chairman Kevin Martin said the agency is “ready, willing and able to step in and, if necessary, correct practices that are ongoing today.” (See Rules, page 22.)

The operator has repeatedly denied that it blocks any Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services. Comcast said it engages only in “reasonable network management” to ensure high-quality service for customers, consistent with FCC policies.

But the issue has not blown over, as Comcast might have hoped.

“I think the New York Attorney General has demonstrated an interesting proclivity for wanting to get involved in potentially high-profile matters all around the country, whether they have anything to do with New York state or not,” Comcast executive vice president David Cohen said last week in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires.

Fitzmaurice noted that the operator serves just 0.5% of the 4.1 million broadband subscribers in New York, via a system that’s actually based in Connecticut and crosses state lines.

Meanwhile, Comcast is the target of a second lawsuit from a subscriber over the bandwidth-squeezing practice, this time in Washington, D.C., alleging the operator falsely advertises that consumers will get “unfettered access” to all Internet content.

The potential class action suit, filed in Superior Court for the District of Columbia, was filed on behalf of Dr. Sanford Sidner and all of Comcast’s other D.C. Internet subscribers.

“I’ve been a Comcast customer for several years, and I feel betrayed,” Sidner said in a prepared statement.

The suit is similar to one filed last November by a San Francisco-area Comcast subscriber, Jon Hart, also seeking class action status. That suit has been moved to U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, at the request of Comcast, according to Hart’s attorney, Mark Todzo.

Sidner claims his service frequently stops or slows to a crawl when he uses file-sharing applications, according to his attorneys at Gilbert Randolph LLP.

Charlie Douglas, director of corporate communications for Comcast, confirmed the company had been served with the suit and provided this statement: “To be clear, Comcast does not, has not, and will not block any Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services, and no one has demonstrated otherwise.”

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