In the FCC ruling today, the commission criticized both the technology and the transparency of Comcast’s network management practices. Network management in and of itself is not a problem, as the Commission has said in their FCC principles protecting consumer access to the Internet. The particular method used by Comcast is at the heart of the problem.
In his written statement to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in April, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin referred to this particular method of traffic management as a “blunt means to reduce peer-to-peer traffic by blocking certain traffic completely.”
The blunt means was referring to how some Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) platforms manage traffic when placed out of line. If a device is out of line, the only way to control traffic is to directly or indirectly signal the sender to slow down or terminate the communication session. Terminating communication sessions is essentially a form of denying access to an application or content, which violates one of the four principles, established to encourage broadband deployment and to preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet. The other, more alarming problem, is that the termination was made to appear to come from somewhere other than from Comcast itself.
Beyond the technology, Comcast fell short in how they notified consumers. As the FCC Chairman indicated in his statement before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on April 22, 2008, “Consumers must be fully informed about the exact nature of the service they are purchasing and any potential limitations associated with that service.”
We should take away two things from today’s decision. First, traffic management itself is not the issue. Second, providers have to be fully transparent with consumers about the reasons why they are managing the network and what that means to them. It is our hope that Congress will allow service providers to use what Chairman Martin referred to previously as “more modern equipment” to ensure the best customer experience rather than move to increase regulation of the Internet. As he indicated today,
“Our action today is not about regulating the Internet. Network neutrality rules are unnecessary because the commission already has the tools to enforce (open standards).”
Comcast was trying to solve a very real problem
Comcast had very valid reasons for managing their network, and the problems they face are universal across all service providers.
Providers planned for networks with protocols and order and what they are faced with today is a tsunami of innovative applications that they don’t control but run over their networks.
According to the Telecom Industry Associations 2008 Telecommunications Market Review and Forecast, bandwidth consumption doubled in 2006 and quadrupled in 2007. The explosion in the volume and diversity of traffic has created real network challenges. The emergence of over-the-top applications, such as You Tube, online gaming and P2P file sharing are dramatically impacting network resources.
Over the top applications are not ‘fair sharers’ of network resources. For example, video and P2P file sharing are heavy consumers of bandwidth while VOIP and gaming are not. Providers are facing a situation where 10% of customers can use up to 80% of the bandwidth. This is hardly a “fair” situation for the 90% who are bound to suffer severe service quality issues if the network is not managed during peak hours.
Network management can be ‘fair’ and fully transparent
For these very sound reasons, service providers are looking at numerous technologies in order to better manage their network resources in order to ensure service quality and fairness for all subscribers. Network management can be ‘fair’ and fully transparent PlusNet, an Arbor customer, is really executing what we believe will be the model for the future. They are delivering fully transparent, tiered services for business and consumer broadband customers with plans and price points to meet everyone’s needs.
As Telephony reported in a recent profile titled “The consumer-friendly version of DPI’, PlusNet is demonstrating that technology can be used today to promote fairness, while still providing the freedom of subscribers to access content and services of their choice. Transparency is the key lesson of the Comcast controversy, and it is for PlusNet as well. PlusNet’s model validates the FCC’s decision today, and emphasizes the importance of transparency.
PlusNet discloses maximum downstream and upstream bandwidth rates for specific application types, such as peer-to-peer file sharing, as well as which applications are prioritized for each service option. In addtion, consumers are given an economic incentive to use the network during off-peak hours. The ISP even publishes network traffic graphs demonstrating the benefits of traffic management policies. PlusNet offers clearly defined service packages that meet the usage and economic needs of their customers, and they provide full transparency as to when and why they are managing bandwidth.
Is managing the network self-serving? Do consumers really care? In an independent survey of 4,000 broadband households in the UK, PlusNet was named “Best Consumer ISP” by a leading Internet industry association. PlusNet was also named as the “Best Broadband Provider in the UK.
The mechanisms to solve the problems of network congestion in a fair and equitable manner are available today. The obligation is now on service providers to be fully transparent about how and why they are managing their networks.