HOLLYWOOD, Calif.--BitTorrent and Comcast have declared a detente in a Net neutrality cold war that has drawn a slew of angry protests and already ended up before the Federal Communications Commission.
But details are still unclear. Comcast will adopt a "capacity management technique that is protocol agnostic," and BitTorrent plans to work with Internet service providers, other technology companies, and the Internet Engineering Task Force to develop ways to optimize file swapping on networks like Comcast's.
To try to figure out what exactly Comcast is planning to do later this year as its part of this detente, I sat down with Comcast's Joe Waz, who is the senior vice president for external affairs and the company's public policy counsel. (Both of us happened to be here at a technology policy conference; I'm scheduled to do an onstage interview of Ashwin Navin, BitTorrent's president and co-founder, as part of the conference on Thursday afternoon.)
Q: What brought on this detente?
Waz: We and BitTorrent, we and a lot of players in the application and technology space, have been talking for years about issues of mutual interest. I think the thing that prompted this latest conversation and the announcement is that since last fall, when the Internet community expressed concerns about the form of network management that we had selected, we wanted to find out why. We did a ton of outreach: "Explain to us what the concerns were, help us to address the fact that...P2P traffic can account for such a large percentage of traffic." We learned a lot, frankly. We learned that there are a large number of points of view out there.
We also took the approach that making networks and applications work well together is a two-way street. What's terrific about this announcement is that it says a leading network provider and a leading application provider are stepping up and finding ways (to make this work).
Your announcement says you're working on "a capacity management technique that is protocol agnostic." What does that mean, exactly?
Waz: The method we had chosen to try to be minimally intrusive in our network management was, as we had described it to the FCC, (a focus on) P2P apps that accounted for the bulk of bandwidth consumption.
Which P2P applications beyond BitTorrent?
Waz: We've never stated what they are. It's not more than a handful. Since we're moving past it, the point's moot anyway.
We limited our involvement to unidirectional uploads. If you were simultaneously uploading and downloading, your transfers weren't affected. VoIP users were benefiting (for instance). That was not consistent with the sense of the broader Internet community about how network management should be conducted.
Look at the announcement this morning. I think you'll see the BitTorrent folks saying (we understand what had to be done) given the state of the technology two years ago when Comcast had to deal with this.
You said you'd plan to throttle based on the individual consumption of individual users during period of peak usage. Does this mean bandwidth caps?
Waz: No. A very high-volume bandwidth user during a peak network period will see their service reduced for a short period of time. It will be based on what you are doing during a period of peak congestion, not what protocol you're using.
This is the right answer right now. You can never build your way out of this problem. There are use peaks on the electrical grid. There are use peaks on Mother's Day on the phone system. You do your way to build (out of the peak) based on what's economically rational.
How often do you see these peak periods occurring?
Waz: It's reasonable to assume that evenings are often peak periods. The variations among nodes are dramatic. If you're at a college it can be different times of day. If you're in a business district it can happen at different times of day.
When you say that service will be reduced for a "short period" of time, do you mean milliseconds, seconds, or minutes?
Waz: Minutes. And again, we'll implement that in a way that's minimally intrusive. No single user will bear a disproportionate share of the management. We'll spread it around.
Does this mean behavioral profiling, and by that I mean tracking what a customer does over many months and if they're a high-bandwidth user in the past, you'll throttle them first during the next peak period?
Waz: It won't be personally identifiable type of information. We'll have more to say about that. When we implement, we'll provide a thorough (disclosure).
So there will be nothing that says, "If you used a lot of bandwidth before, you get targeted more quickly next time based on previous bandwidth usage."
Waz: There should be nothing that goes in that direction.
Bandwidth caps are not part of this at all?
Waz: The techniques we announced now do not involve bandwidth caps or differential pricing. Everyone in the industry is looking at all the alternatives.
Some competitors, like Verizon, for instance, weren't as willing to take on BitTorrent publicly. Did that affect your decision?
Waz: I think I'd put it this way: The major phone companies and the major network providers have said that networks must be managed. Again, different network providers have chosen different techniques, whether they're pricing, technological, or other. I think we're all unified in the view that the right approach here has been for the industry players to work this all out.
Does this mean an end to the FCC proceeding that is seeking to impose Net neutrality-esque rules on Comcast?
Waz: You heard what Commissioner McDowell said this morning. He shared his views.
I cannot speak for the commission. It is our hope that...the agreement...(will) persuade the agency and persuade Congress that the more than decade-old policy of leaving the Internet in the hands of the various providers to work out issues is the way to go. By various providers, I mean networking applications and so on.
Will Comcast file something asking to terminate the proceeding as a result of today's announcement?
Waz: The commission has asked the question, "Do we have the authority to act?" We answered (that in our recent filing). It is our hope that the commission does not proceed with either specific complaints before it, or intrusive rulemaking.
If the FCC gets a Democratic majority next year as a result of the presidential election, any predictions?
Waz: I think that the fact that there's been a bipartisan consensus for over a decade that the marketplace is still the (better choice) for a competitive Internet will still be valid.
BitTorrent the company isn't the same as BitTorrent the protocol. A detente with the company may not mean much to open-source users and developers.
Waz: I think the fact that a leading applications provider like BitTorrent (is saying), "We understand the shared responsibility here, let's find ways to make networks and applications friendly to each other," is exactly the (outcome) we're trying to establish.
Your current throttling system restricts only uploads. Will your new one throttle downloads?
Waz: I don't want to preempt our development and discussion of what we'll do. So I'll defer comment on that for now. But I'll stress again that we've demonstrated our commitment to transparency in this area.
Will this be phased in different geographical regions of the U.S. first?
Waz: It's reasonable to assume it won't happen all on one day. We'll be phasing it in.
Waz: We're planning to phase this in by year-end 2008.