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Peer Politics

4/19/2008 2:00 AM Eastern

Was it an empty public-relations-driven gesture — or a demonstration that so-called network neutrality regulations are unnecessary?

The smoldering issue of how Comcast and other Internet-service providers treat peer-to-peer traffic that traverses their networks continued to throw off sparks last week.

Comcast further positioned itself as proactively and responsibly addressing peer-to-peer applications, announcing it will lead an industry-wide effort to create a “P2P Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” for users and Internet-service providers.

The cable operator and peer-to-peer technology firm Pando Networks said they will collaborate with industry experts, other ISPs and P2P companies and content providers to create a framework “to clarify what choices and controls consumers should have” when using P2P applications and which processes and practices ISPs should use to manage P2P applications running on their networks.

In addition, Comcast said it plans to conduct a test of Pando’s “network-aware” P2P technology to capture and analyze the data flow associated with downloading a file using Pando’s P2P application.

The pact with New York-based Pando follows the operator’s announced intention last month to work with BitTorrent and others to make P2P run more efficiently on its network. Comcast said the Pando test will provide additional data to help it migrate to a “protocol-agnostic network management technique” by the end of this year.

“By having this framework in place, we will help P2P companies, ISPs and content owners find common ground to support consumers who want to use P2P applications to deliver legal content,” Comcast chief technology officer Tony Werner said in a statement.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow issued a statement supporting the P2P pact that cast the issue as a network-engineering challenge: “We applaud today’s announcement by Comcast and Pando Networks, which is further evidence that private-sector collaboration, not government intervention, is the most appropriate way to address complicated technological issues.”

'SLICK’ PR

But net-neutrality advocates — who want to force Comcast and other broadband providers to deliver all Internet traffic equally, on a best-effort basis — derided the announcement as a meaningless ploy.

“Slick press releases by a dishonest would-be gatekeeper do nothing to protect consumers,” Marvin Ammori, general counsel of media-advocacy group Free Press, said in a statement. “The need for net neutrality remains urgent. The [Federal Communications Commission] should do its job to uphold the existing bill of rights for consumers and should do so quickly.”

David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a blog posting that an individual deal between a service provider and a P2P applications provider is “no substitute for open, generally applicable technical standards.”

“An intricate web of individual, ad hoc arrangements and technical measures is not the Web, much less the Internet, that we’ve come to know and love,” Sohn wrote.

Pando CEO Robert Levitan insisted that the collaboration with Comcast will benefit the entire Internet community, as the companies intend to share their protocols, test methodology and results with other P2P software companies and Internet service providers.

Pando recently claimed that a test spanning 1 million broadband users showed its technology sped up peer-to-peer file transfers 235% on cable networks in the United States.

CAUGHT OFF GUARD

In the last several months, Comcast has been caught off guard by the outcry over its practice of impeding peer-to-peer traffic during periods of peak congestion, which culminated in a still-pending FCC investigation and at least two subscriber lawsuits.

NCTA’s McSlarrow, discussing the P2P issue on a March 20 teleconference with reporters, said: “You have engineers who would be stunned to know we are having a conference call about this. Until now, their [network management] decisions probably would not have made it to the front office … CEOs now are digging into this.”

The FCC held a hearing April 17 at Stanford University on network-management practices of Internet service providers. That came after the agency held a similar hearing at Harvard University in February, during which Comcast executive vice president David Cohen was grilled on the operator’s P2P bandwidth management practices.

Comcast declined the FCC’s invitation to send a representative to the Stanford event.

A company spokeswoman said it “felt the issues specific to us were well-covered at the first hearing, and the focus of this event should be broader than any individual company’s issues.”

 

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April