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Absent Comcast in hot seat at FCC hearing

Network engineering specialists accuse Comcast of lying about its practices at a hearing of Federal Communication Commission regulators.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Comcast may come to regret missing a regulatory hearing on Net neutrality.

Robb Topolski, the software engineer who ignited controversy around Comcast's disruption of BitTorrent peer-to-peer traffic, was in the spotlight here at Stanford University Thursday at an en banc hearing of Federal Communication Commission regulators. The FCC held its second hearing in three months on the neutrality issue in the wake of the Comcast ordeal, and the ISPs ensuing self-regulatory measures.

"Consumers were harmed when (Comcast) decided it would do something secretive and non-standard on the Internet," Topolski said, referring to Internet service provider's use of so-called reset tags to disrupt the transfer of large files from BitTorrent.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein speaks in front of a panel at his alma mater. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News.com

"The situation continues today. It has not stopped, despite all the wonderful agreements between BitTorrent and Comcast. I'm a ham radio operator. And Comcast is jamming authorized communication (on the Internet). I ask that before you leave today you signal your intent to stop these interferences."

FCC commissioners were particularly curious about the experience of Topolski and other network-management experts during the panel on ISP practices. At its hearing in February, Comcast representatives had said that it "delayed" traffic from BitTorrent at times of heavy network congestion. But Topolski and others refuted those claims Thursday, saying that Comcast lied on two accounts.

One expert panelist said it's clear that Comcast is blocking, not delaying traffic, with the use of reset tags. "It's like making a phone call and you get a busy signal. Unless you call again, (the connection) won't happen," said Jon Peha, associate director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking and a Carnegie Mellon University professor.

"I know their technical statements are plain wrong," said Peha. "The fact that at this stage of the game we still don't know very much about what they do is interesting in itself."

"The most outrageous thing about this story is that you can't get the facts straight. It is rocket science. But it's not something that a large number of people can't help with."
--Lawrence Lessig, professor, Stanford University

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin later asked Topolski specifically if Comcast was disrupting traffic at times of congestion. He responded that during his tests of Comcast and other networks, he had insomnia. On February 20, for example, he said he tested interference levels from Comcast at 1:45 a.m. and found that 75 percent of the packets were being blocked even then.

"I can't image that being a time of congestion. It tends to be weekdays between 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. when kids come home from school," said Topolski, whose original packet-sniffing tests resulted in the discovery that Comcast was regulating BitTorrent traffic.

George Ou, a former network engineer and consultant, was the lone networking expert in support of Comcast and other ISPs having the ability to throttle traffic. He said that ISPs should have the right to ratchet back the demands of the Internet's thirstiest customers, peer-to-peer networks.

"Video is causing a new collapse (of the Internet). It requires 100- to 1000-fold increase in capacity to deal with current crisis."

Others at the hearing said that the real problem of network congestion, and the heart of the Comcast-BitTorrent issue, is piracy. A representative of the Songwriters Guild of America said that ISPs should be able to manage traffic on their networks and filter the transfer of pirated content.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin FCC

"The great American songwriter is now an endangered species," said Rick Carnes, president of the guild. "If regulation is to be considered, which we hope it isn't, than illegal file-sharing should be at the top of the agenda."

Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig, who also presented at the hearing, said his concern was that there simply isn't enough competition among ISPs, and that consumers don't get what they pay for when it comes to buying high-speed Internet access. That's because ISPs advertise peak connectivity speeds, but won't serve those speeds, as evidenced in Comcast's practices of blocking BitTorrent traffic.

"The most outrageous thing about this story is that you can't get the facts straight. It is rocket science. But it's not something that a large number of people can't help with," he said. "It's really an indictment on the trust of this (consumer) commitment, and it's important to address this question of truthfulness."

Lessig added that the FCC needs to "make it absolutely clear that network providers need to build (their services) neutrally. Public policy is a designer to make it profitable for them to behave...and to pick the right business model consistent with an open, neutral network."

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has proposed new Net neutrality standards that require nondiscriminatory practices by ISPs and application providers, said at the end of the hearing that time is of the essence. "While we're debating, the industry is using that time to decide on what will be the future of the Internet."