Cox Communications next month will begin testing a bandwidth-management system that the MSO said may "momentarily" delay non-time-sensitive Internet applications, such as peer-to-peer file swapping, and the plan has already drawn fire from a self-appointed consumer watchdog group.
The cable operator, in a notice posted on its Web site Tuesday, said it will initiate tests of the system in Kansas and Arkansas markets in February.
"During the occasional times the network is congested, this new technology automatically ensures that all time-sensitive Internet traffic -- such as Web pages, voice calls, streaming videos and gaming -- moves without delay," Cox said. "Less time-sensitive traffic, such as file uploads, peer-to-peer and Usenet newsgroups, may be delayed momentarily -- but only when the local network is congested."
Cox's move comes after industry leader Comcast was reprimanded last year by the Federal Communications Commission for engaging in the practice of inhibiting peer-to-peer programs like BitTorrent during peak times of network congestion. Facing political and consumer pressure, Comcast has since moved to adopt a "protocol-agnostic" approach, which limits the bandwidth available only to the heaviest users for a 15-minute period.
The proposed Cox system explicitly discriminates based on type of application. For example, the cable operator said, streaming video downloads -- which are sensitive to network delays -- would take priority over a P2P download during times of congestion.
In a statement issued Tuesday night, Ben Scott, policy director of consumer-rights lobbying group Free Press, said the group was "concerned about any cable or phone company picking winners and losers online."
"The lesson we learned from the Comcast case is that we must be skeptical of any practice that comes between users and the Internet," Scott said. "These kinds of practices cut against the fundamental neutrality of the open Internet. We urge the FCC to subject this practice to close scrutiny and call on Cox to provide its customers with more technical details about exactly what it's doing."
Free Press also noted that a study by German researchers last May indicated that Cox was engaging in peer-to-peer throttling similar to Comcast.
Asked for comment, Cox spokesman David Grabert e-mailed a statement that said: "Cox delivers a fast, reliable and secure online experience because we continually invest in our network and update our policies and technologies to keep up with our customers' evolving online needs. It is this careful consideration that has helped us win the business of more than 4 million Internet customers who choose Cox as their trusted provider. ... We look forward to hearing feedback from our customers and others about this trial and plan to build that insight into our long-term plan."
In the explanation of the bandwidth-management trial on its site, Cox said the technology and policies "at work in this trial also factor in the guidance provided by the Federal Communications Commission." The MSO contrasted the new approach with its previous technique of "protocol filtering."
"Our goal is to ensure that customers continue to experience the consistently fast, reliable Internet service they've come to expect from Cox," the company said, which noted that congestion can occur on any network when many people are using the network at the same time.
Cox did not disclose which network-equipment vendors or systems it plans to use in the trials in Kansas and Arkansas. The company provided a breakdown of time-sensitive and non-time-sensitive applications subject to the new policy, and said any traffic not specifically classified will be treated as time-sensitive.
The company said its application classifications are "a result of our network engineering expertise and our customers' expectations."
Cox customers who have an e-mail address on file will be notified about the trial via e-mail and others will be notified via traditional mail.
Atlanta-based Cox, the third-biggest U.S. cable operator, has more than 6.2 million total residential and commercial customers.