Comcast’s BitTorrent conversion


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The ink was still drying on Comcast’s press release this morning announcing a collaboration with BitTorrent Inc. on the touchy subject of network management when various groups for and against Net neutrality regulations started weighing in. The ones opposed to such rules typically said the collaboration proved government action was unnecessary; the ones who favored them argued that Comcast acted only because the FCC had launched an investigation into the cable company’s interference with BitTorrent traffic.

BitTorrent President Ashwin Navin was asked his views on the need for neutrality rules this afternoon, but he refused to take the bait. Speaking at the Technology Policy Summit conference in Hollywood, Navin noted that Comcast wasn’t the only ISP using that particular technique to interfere with BitTorrent uploads. ‘I feel good about our relationship with Comcast,’ he said. ‘The FCC has several other ISPs that it needs to be vigilent about.... It would be appropriate, responsible for the FCC to do what it needs to do to make sure the U.S. is a leader in broadband, not only in broadband technology but also broadband regulation.’


If you interpret that as a slap against ISPs taking steps to curb bandwidth use, however, you would be wrong. The Internet wasn’t built with today’s applications and bandwidth demands in mind, Navin said, so it makes sense for ISPs to manage their networks. In fact, he added, anyone developing popular, bandwidth-intensive applications knows that ‘ISPs will need to be able to shape the traffic.’ What’s important about the new agreement with Comcast, he said, is that p2p applications won’t be singled out when networks get congested. ‘Traffic management will be application agnostic, and will be focused on the user,’ he said.

In an interview with CNet’s Declan McCullagh, Comcast’s public policy counsel, Joe Waz, explained that the company plans to attack congestion problems by briefly throttling the traffic to and from the heaviest users during ‘peak times.’ Focusing on users, not applications, makes sense if, as Comcast and other ISPs have contended, a few bandwidth hogs consume most of their network’s capacity.

Both Navin and Waz said that Comcast and BitTorrent have been in talks for a few years about a variety of issues. The controversy caused by the cable operator’s surreptitious undermining of some BitTorrent uploads ‘created a catalyst for us to disclose the things we’ve been working on,’ Navin said. From that perspective, one could say that the threat of a regulatory crackdown played no role in the deal announced today. Still, Navin noted that BitTorrent has told the FCC its concerns about ISPs not publishing their policy for network management. That need to be disclosed, he said, ‘and the reasonableness of the practice needs to be discussed.’ It’s questionable whether Comcast would ever had disclosed what it was doing, or that its techniques would have been debated as vigorously as they have been, had the regulatory wheels not started to turn in Congress and the FCC.

Photos of Ashwin Navin and Joe Waz are courtesy of the BitTorrent and Comcast websites, respectively.