Operators Eye Net Management Makeovers


Cable company engineers and lawyers are huddling to determine whether to change the way they treat Internet traffic that traverses their pipes.

Virtually all large operators are re-examining their broadband network management practices, according to industry executives, after the Federal Communications Commission formally declared Comcast’s practice of tearing down P2P links “unreasonable.”

The FCC’s Aug. 20 order directed Comcast to stop interfering with peer-to-peer Internet applications, and gave the company a 30-day deadline to submit a compliance plan describing how it intends to end the practice. The order does not impose any fines or damages.

Comcast has said it’s evaluating its options, but at the same time continues to test out three different bandwidth-management platforms in several of its markets—Chambersburg, Pa., Warrenton, Va., Colorado Springs, Colo., East Orange, Fla., and Lake City, Fla.—to find the optimal way of curbing network congestion.

Behind the scenes, the entire cable industry is busy figuring out how to adapt to the FCC’s ruling, said Randy Fuller, vice president business development for Camiant, which sells equipment for applying policies to cable modem termination systems.

“I can’t think of a single operator in the top 15 that isn’t looking at this issue carefully,” Fuller said. “They’re all reconsidering the way they are doing network management to make sure it conforms with the FCC’s order. And if it doesn’t, they’re looking at doing some remediation.”

Cox Communications, for one, said this week it was still reviewing the FCC order to determine how the operator will modify its bandwidth management practices.

“We are actively exploring new and evolving technologies for bandwidth management, factoring in the new guidance provided by the FCC, and we will continue to communicate openly with our customers about the methods we use to ensure a high-quality online experience,” Cox said in a statement.

In May, both Comcast and Cox were fingered by a German research group, the Max Planck Institute, as having blocked P2P traffic over their networks during all hours of the day, based on test results from 8,175 Internet volunteers.

Meanwhile, other Internet service providers said the FCC order isn’t applicable to them.

Verizon Communications said in a statement that it does not “engage in the types of P2P traffic management used by Comcast” and therefore “we don't see any need to change any of our current network management practices.”

The FCC explicitly affirmed that broadband providers have the latitude to impose different priority for different applications (such as voice-over-Internet-Protocol services) and manage their networks during times of congestion—as long as the method is applied fairly and an operator discloses its practices.

“They’ve reinforced that there remains a justification for ‘reasonable network management,’” said Tom Donnelly, co-founder and executive vice president of marketing and sales for Sandvine. “It’s managing the network in a fair and efficient fashion, in a way that benefits the widest number of users.”

Sandvine, whose products are used to manage networks serving 60 million broadband households worldwide, supplied the gear Comcast has used to target P2P connections.

To some observers, the main lesson of the Comcast controversy is that the need to inform customers of what’s happening on the network is paramount.

Kurt Dobbins, chief technology officer of IP services for bandwidth-management systems vendor Arbor Networks, pointed to the strategy of British Telecom’s Plusnet. The U.K. service provider is using his company’s platform to deliver different tiers of service and fully discloses how it manages the network during times of peak congestion.

“We think transparency is really key. It’s good for consumers,” he said. “It’s about giving consumers more choice, and they pick the best plan.”

The FCC found Comcast’s alleged obfuscation of how it has been managing its networks almost as objectionable as the original P2P filtering.

“Although Comcast’s Terms of Use statement may have specified that its broadband Internet access service was subject to ‘speed and upstream and downstream rate limitations,’ such vague terms are of no practical utility to the average customer,” the FCC said in its order.

Camiant’s Fuller said it’s not especially difficult to implement the technology to provide congestion-management based on usage, or to charge users based on how much bandwidth they consume.

“The hardest part will be marketing and customer acceptance,” he said. “The No. 1 challenge is to make sure nobody is surprised by the new plan.”

Arris has been testing its Fair Bandwidth Management tool, which works in conjunction with its CMTSs, to reduce connection speeds for the heaviest users in a cable node. So far, trials with several operators haven’t resulted in a single customer complaint, claimed Frank Hall, an Arris product line manager.

“That indicates people are not at their computers, so they’re not noticing the drop in bandwidth,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is just smooth out the peaks, but not reduce bandwidth to such a point where you’re leaving network resources idle.”