FCC Debates Net Neutrality At Stanford

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Washington—The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday traveled to Northern California to stage its second public forum on Comcast Corp.’s management of its broadband network, especially delaying techniques applied to the bandwidth-hogging peer-to-peer application BitTorrent.

The FCC has been investigating Comcast’s actions, an effort which triggered new calls for the adoption of network neutrality laws and regulations applied to cable, phone and wireless companies that offer high-speed Internet access.

FCC Democrat Michael Copps said the time was now for the FCC to propound “a clear, strong declaration that we will not tolerate unreasonable discrimination by network operators and that we have in place enforcement policies to make sure that anyone with other ideas isn’t going to get away with them.”

Copps’s remarks came near the top of a five-hour forum at Stanford University’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium in Palo Alto, Ca., a close neighbor to many Silicon Valley-based Internet companies with a big stake in the design of regulations aimed at cable and phone broadband access providers.

The first forum was held in February at Harvard Law School.

At Thursday’s forum, FCC chairman Kevin Martin gave Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig almost 30 minutes—more time than any single speaker, including all five FCC members—to criticize Comcast and point to the cable operator’s file-sharing actions as yet another reason that the FCC had to restrain network owners before they harmed innovation on the edge of the network.

Comcast, Lessig insisted, provided “misrepresentations of what they had done” when asked about steps it had taken against BitTorrent users. “And that,” he added, “raised fundamental questions about trust.”

Comcast has argued that it didn’t block but only delayed BitTorrent uploads because fat video files sent by a minority of users were clogging its network and degrading service to the vast majority of high-speed data customers at peak hours.

Comcast has been accused of having an anticompetitive motive as BitTorrent represents a competitive threat not just to its traditional cable business but also to such new products as high-definition channels and video-on-demand services.

FCC Republican Robert McDowell said that blocking just uploads was hardly firm proof of an anticompetitive motive.

“If [Comcast’s] actions were intended to be anti-competitive, would Comcast not have been interfering with video downloads instead?” McDowell said.

The FCC heard from a few experts that Comcast’s use of reset packets to interrupt BitTorrent sessions was outside the mainstream of network management practices.

Robb Topolski—a software engineer whom Martin publicly acknowledged for uncovering Comcast’s steps relative to BitTorrent—said the use of reset packets was the equivalent of “jamming authorized communications.”

He added, “It isn’t standard or authorized.”

The FCC itself came in for some criticism with regard the evolution of its Internet policy. The agency refused to require broadband access providers—first cable, then phone companies—from leasing capacity to competing ISPs, hoping multiple independent facilities-based providers would emerge through a policy of vigilant restraint.

Now that cable and phone companies dominate the residential broadband market, defeated proponents of open access for ISPs claim that the duopoly broadband market structure created by the FCC’s hands-off policy needs to be restrained by network neutrality rules.

FCC Democrat Jonathan Adelstein noted that the FCC blew its chance to promote competition at the access level in the recently concluded auction of old analog TV spectrum.

The 700 MHz auction, Adelstein said, “really dashed the hopes of nationwide third channel into the home that would have really opened up that level of competition. Instead, we saw that it solidified the hold of the largest [wireless] incumbents.”

In his comments, Martin repeated his view that broadband network owners had an obligation to disclose to everyone how they go about managing the flow of legal content on their networks.

“Consumers must be fully informed about the exact nature of the service they are purchasing,” Martin said.

Rich Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, said he was against regulation of the Internet. But if the government decided to step in, it should allow ISPs to combat the piracy of music and other intellectual property, he said.

“For nearly 10 years, I’ve watch illegal file sharing destroy the lives of my friends and my colleagues by depriving them of their property, their jobs, their homes and sometimes even their families,” Carnes said. “If regulation is to be considered, though we hope it isn’t, then illegal file sharing, which is the very heart of the problem, should be at the top of the agenda.”

AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, CableLabs were all extended invitations to speak but all declined, Martin said.

McDowell said at least twice he was disappointed that the major access providers—he added Verizon to the list—skipped the Stanford forum.

“Comcast has already appeared before the [FCC] on network management issues and has made extensive filings at the FCC both on our past and current practices as well as our recent announcements. We felt issues specific to us were well covered at the first hearing and the focus of this event should be broader than any individual company’s issues,” Comcast said in a statement Thursday.

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