By Richard Koman / CIO Today. Updated October 22, 2007.
Comcast interferes with peer-to-peer traffic on its cable network by masquerading as users and resetting connections, the Associated Press reported on Friday. Apparently in an effort to maintain quality of service, Comcast cuts off uploads of files to BitTorrent and other P2P networks.
While observers agree that an Internet service provider needs to be able manage its traffic, the way Comcast is going about this -- by impersonating customers -- is troubling to many.
"Comcast is in an interesting position because the amount of outbound and inbound traffic is constrained in their network," Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic.net, a California ISP, said in a telephone interview. "In an asynchronous network, as the amount of outbound traffic grows, inbound rates will decrease." Thus in order to maintain service quality for inbound traffic, which is important to all users, Comcast is throttling outbound P2P traffic.
But the way Comcast is doing it -- by "injecting TCP resets that are forged as coming from the customer," according to Jasper -- is "pretty weird." The AP story offered an apt metaphor: It's as if an AT&T operator broke into a phone conversation and impersonated one of the speakers, saying, "I have to go now, goodbye" and closed the connection.
"That's a fundamental line that's been crossed," Jasper said.
And yet, he added, Comcast might have no choice. "The peer-to-peer software is so insidious in how it tries to work around throttling, that forging may be the only way to stop the traffic," he said.
"Comcast does not block access to any applications, including BitTorrent," Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas was quoted by AP as saying. "We have a responsibility to provide all of our customers with a good experience online and we use the latest technologies to manage our network."
That raises a basic question, Jasper said. "What are customers buying and what are they entitled to?" When Comcast advertises an Internet connection up to six megabits, does that mean customers have a right to the maximum speed all the time? Does it mean users are promised access to every Internet application?
"It speaks to the marketing and positioning of the product and what consumers are willing to accept," Jasper said. "All of that ties back to the competitive marketplace and the lack of competition." Thus, he said, there is a straight line between bandwidth "shaping" and telecommunications policy.
"Under the current Republican leadership," FCC Chair Kevin J. Martin "has always said that multimodal competition, a duopoly, is enough." A duopoly behaves like a monopoly, said Jasper. "This is what a noncompetitive marketplace looks like. They can get away with whatever they want. They can behave however they like."
Comcast doesn't have to discourage peer-to-peer use, John Sundman declared on his Wetmachine blog. "Inserting reset packets to degrade the reliability of BitTorrent is much cheaper than upgrading from existing hybrid-fiber-coax to fiber," he wrote. "Comcast makes the logical choice and degrades traffic that eats bandwidth rather than pay to upgrade."
Since most of the P2P traffic is certainly piracy, Comcast also holds the moral high ground, Jasper said. "If someone's going to make a stink," he explained, Comcast can probably expose the user as a pirate. "This is not the first case of a non-neutral network we've seen," he concluded. "ISPs in Australia and cable companies in Canada have been screwing with peer-to-peer traffic for a long time."