Comcast Playing Favorites Again?

Last year, faced with an irate Federal Communications Commission, Comcast said it would stop blocking peer-to-peer visits to manage congestion on its network. Instead, the company promised to control traffic without regard to the type of content or application.

But it's not clear that Comcast is keeping that promise., says the FCC is now questioning Comcast about its policies for Voice over Internet Protocol telephone service. Specifically, the FCC wants to know why the company says some VoIP phone calls might occasionally sound "choppy" -- but not those placed through Comcast's own digital phone service.

In a Jan. 18 letter to Comcast vice president for regulatory affairs Kathryn Zachem, the FCC demanded "a detailed justification for Comcast's disparate treatment of its own VoIP service as compared to that offered by other competitors on its network."

"To the extent that Comcast maintains that its VoIP offering is a telephone service ... it would appear that the fee Comcast assesses its customers for VoIP service pays in part for the privileged transmission of information of the customer's choosing across Comcast's network," states the letter, which was signed by Dana Shaffer, chief of the FCC's wireline competition bureau, and general counsel Matthew Berry.

Last year, Comcast said it would manage its network by slowing down a small portion of traffic during periods of heavy use. The new system involves two classes of traffic -- a "priority best effort" category and the potentially slower "best effort" category. Comcast downgrades subscribers to the "best effort" bucket if they have used a high amount of bandwidth in a 15-minute period. When those users decrease bandwidth use for a 15-minute period, they're returned to the "priority best effort" state.

But Comcast says on its Web site that it's excluding its own digital voice services from this two-tiered system.

"Comcast Digital Voice is a separate facilities-based IP phone service that is not affected by this technique," the company writes. "Comcast customers who use VoIP providers that rely on delivering calls over the public Internet who are also using a disproportionate amount of bandwidth during a period when this network management technique goes into effect may experience a degradation of their call quality at times of network congestion."

At the same time, Comcast also indicates that the difference in treatment might not affect users. "VoIP calling in and of itself does not use a significant amount of bandwidth," the company wrote. "Furthermore, our real-world testing of this technique did not indicate any significant change in the quality of VoIP calls, even for managed customer traffic during periods of congestion."

A Comcast spokesperson tells MediaPost that the company is reviewing the letter. "We have fully complied with the FCC's order regarding our congestion management practices," the spokesperson says.

The FCC gave Comcast until Jan. 30 to respond.

2 comments about "Comcast Playing Favorites Again?".
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  1. Daniel Stone from Evolving Media Network, January 19, 2009 at 4:16 p.m.

    Comcast is under fire because the spotlight is on them. I'm not a fan of their stance but when it comes to VoIP but a lot of VoIP/ISP providers are doing this. Speakeasy would be a good example. They are doing one of two things (or both) - QoS on their networks for VoIP services, or managing the POTS connection within their network - both would improve VoIP services significantly. For 'all internet' VoIP services the packets might travel over several networks to get to their destination, thus reducing the quality of service. ISPs have a definitive home advantage in this area, and personally - I think this should be a special case, as it really is in the best interest of the consumer.

  2. Matt Howard from SMBLive, January 19, 2009 at 5:49 p.m.

    Net nuetrality is a huge elephant in the room. It's relatively quiet now -- but it's going to get very noisy soon. Your post suggests that it's due to demand for VOiP services. I think it has more to do with the massive growth in video.

    YouTube is now the world's second largest search engine in the world. It drives per user costs through the roof, and in many cases there is no value added to the carrier. Consider the situation in the UK with BBC's iPlayer. Also consider the impact that sites like Hulu will have on carriers here in the US.

    No matter how you slice it -- video is rapdily driving network costs higher for the carriers. This, in turn, is causing them to rethink their position with regard to net nuetraility.

    They will either get paid for value added (priority) content becuase regulators let them -- or they will figure out ways to deliver new, higher margin, services that work with the tide rather than against it.

    I'd personally rather innovate --than regulate.

    We'll see what happens.

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