The press occasionally notices that Comcast limits the amount of bandwidth that a cable subscriber is allowed to use. The Washington Post just published an article about the Comcast bandwidth caps.
The idea is that a handful of people download a huge amount of data constantly (typically movies and TV shows) and demand an unfair amount of Comcast’s available capacity. Comcast does not have a published “maximum” but throttles connections back at some arbitrary point. When asked, Comcast argues – pretty reasonably – that although it advertises 6Mb download speeds, it’s not offering to support nonstop downloads at high speed 24 hours a day so that somebody can assemble a huge library of pirated movies. It claims only to slow connections in the most extreme cases, affecting a very small number of people.
Although Comcast appears to be the most aggressive about this, there are anecdotes about similar restrictions by other cable providers.
I have some sympathy for Comcast but there’s two additional things that suggest this will become a much more grey area.
Comcast has recently begun specifically identifying BitTorrent traffic and slowing it to a crawl – for anyone using BitTorrent for any purpose. Here’s one of the forum threads where this is being discussed.
BitTorrent is technology that facilitates downloads of large files by joining computers into little ad hoc mini-networks, with each computer uploading and downloading pieces of the files to and from each other. It has become a standard for distributing commercial software as well as being used for downloading movies, TV shows, music, and just about anything else you can think of. The movie industry hates BitTorrent because it can be used as a decentralized way to distribute copyrighted material, but it’s also widely used by real companies for quite legitimate business purposes. (Azureus is my BitTorrent client of choice.)
BitTorrent undeniably uses bandwidth, but a generalized slowdown on BitTorrent traffic penalizes a useful and legitimate technology for no reason except that it has been demonized by the movie industry. It’s a political choice by Comcast, not a technology choice.
The other troubling development is a recent development in a long-term policy drive that could change the very nature of the Internet – to Comcast’s benefit and our detriment. The Department of Justice just sent a public filing to the Federal Communications Commission opposing network neutrality regulations. The DOJ’s letter might as well have been written by lobbyists for AT&T or the other broadband providers. There’s a long-term effort by the broadband providers to squeeze revenue from consumers and web providers by charging more for priority access to the available bandwidth – and the likelihood that other web sites and services will be slowed down or disabled if they don’t pay up. The communications companies have been making steady progress in eroding the principles of net neutrality – one of the underlying principles of the Internet as we know it – thanks in large part to the Bush administration and its unceasing efforts to enrich big companies.