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Globe Editorial

Seat warming, Internet blocking

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March 2, 2008

COMCAST CORP. hired seat-warmers to make sure it would have supporters in the crowd at a hearing by the Federal Communications Commission at Harvard Law School last week. The company needed a favorable audience. Its executive vice president was about to make a dubious claim: that Comcast had the right to block (or delay, depending on one's perspective) use of the BitTorrent program by subscribers to Comcast's high-speed Internet service.

The FCC held the hearing to determine whether Comcast was violating the agency's principle that, on the Internet, "consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice." The Associated Press couldn't do that last October when it tried to transmit a copy of the King James Bible using BitTorrent, a so-called peer-to-peer technology that allows individuals to connect to one another's computers to share large files.

Bibles aren't BitTorrent's forte. It's well suited to transmit data-heavy video files, especially movies. The high-speed, or broadband, technology that Comcast uses was developed in the 1990s, before the advent of peer-to-peer video sharing. The company's Internet service is based on clusters of 400 to 500 customers. If a few BitTorrent users move video through Comcast wires when others are trying to access the Internet, service for the whole cluster can slow down. That, Comcast officials say, is why the company quietly set up software last fall to block use of BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer services.

In one respect, Comcast is doing the sensible thing - upgrading its service throughout the nation to accommodate heavier use of the Internet. It expects improvements to be available to millions of homes by the end of the year. But the blocking program was a shady shortcut. At the hearing, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin seemed most worried that Comcast did it surreptitiously. But with few other broadband providers available and with the hassle of switching Internet providers, customers would have had little recourse even if the company had announced its intention beforehand.

Comcast's market power
This market power worries US Representative Edward Markey, chairman of the House subcommittee in charge of telecommunications, and other advocates of an open Internet. Many were denied entrance to the hearing because Comcast retainers had arrived early. The advocates are probably exaggerating the danger that Comcast would immediately try to use its control over the Internet lines to steer customers to favored sites. BitTorrent videos might eventually pose a threat to the Comcast cable business, but for now this is a mishandled technical problem.

In the longer term, however, the dominance of the broadband Internet by a few providers poses problems that the FCC and Congress will need to address. Under the Bush administration, the commission has acted as though the free market alone would bring broadband service to households throughout the country. Comcast and other companies have made massive investments to upgrade their service, but it's not enough. The United States ranks 15th in the world in per-capita broadband penetration, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The FCC is pinning its hopes on the new wireless broadband connections that will become available in the frequency space left vacant when television converts to all-digital transmissions. But for some consumers, wireless may not be an adequate substitute for wired connections. In areas that Comcast serves, the greatest deterrent is the cost, $42.95 a month for cable TV subscribers, and $57.95 for those who don't get the TV service, after an initial discount. While 48 million households can get it, only 13.2 million do.

Verizon Corp. is rolling out its own high-speed FiOS service, which is more advanced than the old Comcast system, and doesn't have the same problems with BitTorrent. Verizon misused control over its own wireless phone network last September when it refused to allow a text-message campaign by the abortion-rights group NARAL. Verizon quickly reversed its decision and apologized - as Comcast should do now. Looking forward, Comcast might try charging higher fees for people with especially heavy Internet usage.

"While networks may have legitimate network issues and practices," Chairman Martin said at the hearing, "that does not mean that they can arbitrarily block access to certain network services." For that reason, the FCC should push Comcast to stop blocking customers from using technologies the company doesn't like.

Government can help
Beyond the immediate problem, the Comcast case shows that, unaided, the market will not make broadband available to all Americans who want it. The United States was the leader in Internet usage when dial-up via traditional telephone lines were the norm. Now it is falling behind in the percentage of the population with high-speed connections, and the price and speed of the service.

Nobody in positions of responsibility is calling for the kind of government control that facilitated the growth of some of these broadband networks, notably in South Korea, where the content is tightly regulated. Instead, Markey has proposed a bill that would codify open-Internet principles similar to those advocated by the FCC, and would call for a series of summits across the country to consider consumer protection, competition, and choice in high-speed service. It's quite a mild bill, but it might be the first step toward promoting Internet development more equitably.

Interested parties sometimes hire seat-warmers before hearings in Washington. Like those lobbyist-heavy events, the Harvard gathering featured more people in suits than would normally be seen in a law school classroom. The question for Congress is whether the high-speed Internet of the future is being shaped to serve their interests - or those of the people who couldn't make their voices heard before the FCC.

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