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FCC to Probe Comcast's Data Practices

1/18/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

Comcast, the nation's leading provider of residential high-speed Internet access, received official word last week that it is being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission in connection with its network-management practices, according to two parties close to the case.

The FCC's Enforcement Bureau, according to these parties, sent Comcast a letter on Jan. 11 that spelled out in general terms the agency's interest in knowing whether the cable company is managing its network in a manner consistent with the agency's August 2005 policy statement, which included four consumer-centric “principles” designed to ensure “that broadband networks are widely deployed, open, affordable, and accessible to all consumers.”

The agency received complaints about Comcast last October after stories from the Associated Press reported the company had blocked and slowed down peer-to-peer transmissions of users of BitTorrent, a popular service that speeds the transfer of large files between captures. Denying it blocked such traffic, Comcast said it was managing the network so that a small minority of bandwidth hogs didn't spoil service for the vast majority of customers.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin signaled the launch of the agency's investigation in comments Jan. 8 at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Last Tuesday, Martin confirmed that Verizon Wireless received a similar letter regarding its policy on blocking text messages. Last September, Verizon Wireless blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group, from sending text messages en masse to its members. Verizon quickly reversed itself after a spate of critical media reports.

Outside the context of two investigations, the FCC announced last week that it would decide whether degrading peer-to-peer traffic is a legitimate network-management practice, and whether text-messaging services should be regulated to prevent discriminatory actions by carriers.

The investigations and proposed ruling revive the network-neutrality debate that killed major telecommunications legislation in Congress two years ago. In 2006, the debate was replete with vague definitions and wild prognostications. Now, the fight is over real-world examples before the FCC, which Martin says has sufficient authority to act.

A Comcast spokeswoman confirmed the receipt of the FCC inquiry, but would not make a copy available. An FCC spokesman would not confirm the letter, saying Enforcement Bureau communications of this type were not to be made public.

“We believe our practices are in accordance with the FCC's policy statement on the Internet where the commission clearly recognized that reasonable network management is necessary for the good of all customers,” Comcast executive vice president David Cohen said in a statement.

The AP articles triggered complaints at the FCC that Comcast violated the agency's broadband principles, one of which states that “consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.”

The FCC said that its principles are not formal “rules” with which companies must comply. Also, the principles allow broadband providers to engage in “reasonable network management,” a vague concept that the FCC had decided it will now define in the context of the Comcast complaint, if not in a generally applicable rulemaking.

September