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Comcast to FCC: Virtual Private Nets are OK

5/18/2003 8:00 PM Eastern

Comcast Corp. has dropped a restriction in its cable-modem service contracts that allegedly blocked telecommuters from tapping into corporate data networks.

But the move did not convince at least one Web merchant — Amazon.com Inc. — that all fair-competition concerns had gone away.

Secure hookups

Comcast lawyers told the Federal Communications Commission on May 7 that it no longer required high-speed data customers to sign agreements placing restrictions on so-called virtual private networks, or VPNs.

"The 'VPN restriction' about which certain parties have complained has been eliminated
from and is no longer part of Comcast's subscriber agreements and terms of service for its high-speed Internet customers," Comcast said in a two-page letter to the FCC.

Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, has more than 4 million data subscribers.

VPNs allow workers at home or outside the office to connect to their workplace networks in a secure manner, and to access files that reside within their office desktop computers.

A group called the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators (CBUI) urged the FCC to consider Comcast's VPN restrictions as evidence that cable operators planned to use their network control to discriminate against unaffiliated Internet companies.

In the filing, Comcast did not say when the VPN restriction was removed. But an MSO source said last Monday that it happened last fall, and was not directly tied to the CBUI's complaints.

The Comcast source said VPN restrictions were no longer necessary because the company had decided to manage bandwidth through tiering, under which heavy network users would pay more than light users.

The CBUI's roster includes Amazon (www.amazon.com), Yahoo! Inc. (www.yahoo.com), eBay Inc.(www.ebay.com), The Walt Disney Co., RadioShack Corp. and Microsoft Corp. Leo J. Hindery Jr.'s Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network is also a member.

CBUI wants more

At a press conference last month, CBUI members alleged that VPN restrictions were adopted to allow cable companies to reserve the right to create and market their own VPN services.

Amazon vice president of global public policy Paul Misener said his company remains concerned that cable operators would use network control to discriminate against unaffiliated Web competitors, despite Comcast's elimination of VPN restrictions.

"VPN is not the end of the question here. It has to do with in any way restricting service based on content or intended destination by a customer," Misener said last week.

The CBUI has asked the FCC to forbid cable operators from discriminating against Web merchants and other Internet companies with which they do not have financial relationships.

In a separate request, Amazon has recommended that the FCC impose non-discrimination rules if cable operators decline to give high-speed data customers their choice of three Internet providers.

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