Washington -- Keeping his feud with the cable industry alive until the bitter end, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin on Sunday opened a new probe into Comcast Corp.'s management of its broadband network.
This time, Martin, who is resigning Tuesday, is investigating whether Comcast is discriminating against Internet-based VoIP providers. Skype and Vonage users could experience call-quality declines during peak congestion times while Comcast's VoIP service, which isn't Web-based, would not.
"We request that Comcast explain why it omitted from its filings with the [FCC] the distinct effects that Comcast's new network management technique has on Comcast's VoIP offering versus those of its competitors," the FCC said in a Jan. 18 letter signed by two hand-picked Martin aides, General Counsel Matthew Berry and Wireline Competition Bureau chief Dana Shaffer.
Comcast has until Jan. 30, 2009 to file a response.
"We have fully complied with the FCC's order regarding our congestion management practices. We are reviewing the FCC staff's letter," a Comcast spokeswoman said Monday.
Martin's last working day in the job was technically Friday, Jan. 16. Monday was a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Tuesday is the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Evidently, Martin had staff working over the weekend to generate the letter to Comcast, even though the VoIP-related complaint had been at the FCC since Oct. 14.
"We are pleased that the [FCC] is conducting an ongoing investigation into network management practices that might impact users' access to the online content and services of their choice," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a group which helped file the original network management complaint against Comcast.
In August, Martin, a Republican, teamed with the FCC's two Democrats to rule that Comcast was operating its broadband network in a manner that discriminated against peer-to-peer file sharing applications.
Comcast changed its congestion-control practices in response to the FCC's order. The company said it stopped targeting P2P traffic, even though the massive downloading of large video files by BitTorrent users was choking Comcast's network in the first place.
Comcast appealed the ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Martin's battle with cable, stemming from cable's refusal to provide more channels on a la carte basis, has yielded about a dozen law suits.
Comcast's VoIP service runs over a network distinct from the public Internet. A company like Vonage, however, sends all of its traffic over the Internet until it's handed to other carriers that have their own networks.
In some ways, the FCC is asking Comcast, by way of analogy, to explain why its cable TV system treats CNN and C-SPAN as cable channels better than it treats YouTube clips on the Internet during periods of high congestion.
"Free Press [has] also expressed concern over Comcast's different treatment of video services and urged further investigation into the company's new practices," the group said.
Meanwhile, Comcast is aggressively deploying DOCSIS 3.0, or wideband cable-modem technology, which is designed to improve consumer access and use of Web-based video services, such as the popular Hulu site that stores NBC and Fox hit shows.
Comcast now offers cable-modem service with up to 50-Mbps downloads to 10 million customer premises, in markets that include Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Boston, Washington State and Oregon.
The FCC letter warned Comcast that it ran the risk of having its VoIP service classified as a telecommunications service, perhaps forcing Comcast to pay higher rates to exchange traffic with traditional phone carriers.
But Comcast has run that risk since 2004, when the FCC opened a rulemaking on the classification of cable VoIP service. The agency has never classified cable VoIP, even though cable-modem service, digital subscriber line service, and wireless broadband have all been classified as information services not subject to traditional common carrier obligations.
Todd Spangler contributed to this report