• The FCC's Comcast Sanction: More Problems, Fewer Solutions Ahead

    In case you missed it, last Friday the FCC took the unprecedented step of sanctioning Comcast for what it considered unreasonable network management policies. Before you deem this "inside-the-beltway" bureaucratic wrangling and click away to your next piece of business, I suggest you take a moment to consider the broad-reaching implications of the FCC's action, and how they will undoubtedly affect you and your video business long-term.

    (If you'd really like to dig in, the FCC commissioners' opinions are here)

    There has been a lot written about what precipitated the FCC's action, so I won't restate all the gory details here. Very briefly, last Fall formal complaints were filed with the FCC alleging that Comcast treated certain of its broadband subscribers' use of BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer (P2P) application, in a discriminatory manner vis-a-vis other network traffic.

    After collecting comments and taking testimony from experts, the FCC concluded (with its Republican chairman leading the charge) to sanction, but not fine, Comcast for its actions. Importantly, it also stipulated that Comcast has to submit its network management plans to the FCC going forward, effectively anointing the FCC as the nation's new broadband network management czar.

    I submit that for those in the broadband video industry, nothing good will come from the FCC's action. The FCC and other governmental bodies are understaffed and ill-equipped to be making highly technical network management decisions. The FCC's decree may well usher in an era of confusion and sclerotic decision-making, forcing broadband ISPs to curtail network investments at exactly the time when they need to be increasing their spending to enable more video traffic to flow.

    It is worth noting that the Internet's periodic growing pains have been overcome not by the government stepping in, but by the government stepping away. This surely seems counter-intuitive to regulatory traditionalists. But it works because the ethos of the Internet's technical community is by and large collaborative and forward-looking. Supplanting that spirit with litigious, bureaucratic sprawl benefits nobody. In saying all this, I'm guided by pragmatism, not political bias.

    Though we all want to be able to use the Internet free from any interference, the problem is that the Internet is still a wild west of sorts, where lawless and lawful behavior can be heavily intertwined. P2P is a perfect example. While legal (when used appropriately), its use can wreak havoc for other users and for network operators. Previously, there were no clear rules about how operators should respond when a handful of P2P users swamp the network. The Comcast sanction doesn't change that, it just puts the FCC in the position of judging, case-by-case the reasonableness of the network operator's containment actions.

    So here we are. An odd stew including a militantly anti-cable FCC chairman, two flag-draped Democratic cohorts, a clutch of freedom of speech instigators and a large ISP (Comcast) which flunked PR 101 in how it implemented and communicated its network management practices, has opened up a new era in broadband regulatory policy. Ugh.

    What do you think? Post a comment now!