FCC's Tongue-Lashing Forces ISPs to Break Out Broadband Hammers


The FCC’s wholly symbolic lecturing of Comcast on the company’s peer-to-peer clampdown, a "divisive" 3-2 vote by the commissioners, will have exactly one practical effect.

Which is this: The ruling, pushed through by the comcastically anti-cable Kevin Martin, will force Internet service providers to use a broader bandwidth-throttling method instead of more surgically precise ones.

In other words, MSOs like Comcast will have to trade their specialized P2P pliers for blunt broadband hammers.

That’s all.

And Comcast is already moving this way, as market forces (i.e., bad publicity and lawsuits) were blowing it in that direction

The FCC’s almost meaningless pronouncement Friday doesn’t do much of anything except reinforce Martin’s legacy as a chairman relentlessly antagonistic to a particular industry sector.

Network neutrality activists, naturally, lauded the decision as a win because it appeared to reinforce their agenda. "The FCC’s bipartisan decision to punish Comcast is a major victory," Free Press executive director Josh Silver said in a statement. "Defying every ounce of conventional wisdom in Washington, everyday people have taken on a major corporation and won an historic precedent for an open Internet."

But if the squeaky P2P file-sharers who got their wheels greased by the FCC believe their Internet connections will suddenly become unfettered, they are mistaken.

All that will change is how the P2P pigs are penned in. 

Instead of merely having their upstream BitTorrent connections curtailed — which limits the bandwidth Comcast uses to deliver gobs of (probably pirated) content to anonymous users from Boise to Belarus — the P2P bandwidth hogs will now see their entire Internet connection degraded to DSL speeds

Is that more fair than surgically throttling back anonymous P2P uploads? To me, it’s six of one, half-dozen of the other.

Some may argue that, from a policy perspective, Kevin Martin’s P2P penalty flag establishes the precedent that Comcast and other ISPs aren’t allowed to discriminate against individual applications.

Except that this isn’t true. There’s no reasonable expectation that ISPs must now indiscriminately allow any use of their networks. For example, they’ll surely still be allowed to block denial-of-service attacks (one of the reasons a net-neutrality law with absolutist language would be a bad idea.)

Even Kevin Martin acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times that it is acceptable for an Internet service provider to, say, give priority to Net-based phone calls over e-mail messages. "You have to have a very good reason for what you’re trying to do," he said. "Your solution has to be narrowly tailored."

If keeping a lid on the all-consuming nature of peer-to-peer traffic isn’t a good reason for implementing specific network management practices, it’s not clear what is. Again, the only result of the FCC’s P2P ruling is that bandwidth hogs will see their entire Internet connection cut back temporarily, rather than just their BitTorrent uploads.

Some analysts have suggested that the agency’s sanction of Comcast will result in the industry moving toward usage-based pricing, thereby inhibiting the growth of online video.

“A usage-based-pricing model would utterly transform the way we think about, and use, video over the Internet,” Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett wrote in a research note Friday. “Suddenly, users would stop to think about whether they did or didn’t want to click on a link to a video of their grandchildren. And whether they want to use BitTorrent at all. After all, the reason people use BitTorrent today is because it’s free (read: illegal).”

I think the forces driving operators toward usage-based pricing are the overall swelling of Internet traffic in general and file-sharing in particular.

But by removing a key tool from the ISPs’ toolbox, the FCC surely has not discouraged the prospect of usage caps and overage fees. After all, what’s more fair than paying your fair share for the resources you consume?