Cable chief: Let us 'experiment' with our networks

In light of Comcast-BitTorrent controversy, trade group head says engineers need freedom to manage file-sharing traffic--and combat piracy--without regulators getting in the way.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read

With discontent still festering over Comcast's admitted slowing of file-sharing uploads, the cable industry's chief on Thursday set out to do a little damage control.

Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, said he's "amused" that in all the coverage of the Comcast-BitTorrent spat, no one's talking about the cable industry's role in getting high-speed Internet service to millions of American households and, by extension, enabling online applications and services to take off.

NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow National Cable and Telecom- munications Association

"One of the ironies is that most of these applications depended on cable's rollout of residential broadband and our ongoing efforts to optimize the network to deliver the experience our customers expect," McSlarrow said during a morning conference call with reporters.

In a 15-minute monologue, McSlarrow spoke of the importance of allowing network engineers to tackle "challenges" that arise from heavy peer-to-peer file-sharing use, particularly at peak hours where the potential for "congestion" is high. They're only trying to help cable Internet subscribers have the smoothest possible surfing experience, he suggested.

In fact, the cable industry fully recognizes the value of peer-to-peer file sharing for moving large chunks of data more efficiently, McSlarrow said. He favors participation in working groups that are conjuring up more "intelligent" ways of routing peer-to-peer traffic, such as so-called P4P software being explored by Verizon.

Concerns about copyright infringement also make peer-to-peer management important, McSlarrow added. Cable companies will never block their customers access to "lawful" content and applications, he said, but they are exploring "technological solutions that address piracy in ways that respect our customers' expectations and respect copyright holders' rights."

"Technology is agnostic, but it is plainly the case that some significant percentage of the peer-to-peer traffic is pirated material," he said.

Internet service providers have traditionally dealt with copyright infringement on their networks by removing offending content when asked, but in recent months, some ISPs have indicated plans to be more proactive. AT&T is among the companies testing methods to filter out pirated content on its networks, which some consumer advocacy groups argue poses privacy concerns and runs the risk of chilling free expression. Verizon, by contrast, has said it's not interested in going that route.

Note to regulators: Leave us alone
As for the Comcast-BitTorrent controversy, McSlarrow had one clear message for regulators: Butt out.

"I'm not a technical expert, but I know enough to know when technical experts and engineers should take the lead to resolve what are basically tech challenges," he said, adding: "Regulators should recognize some humility and let that play out."

McSlarrow said he welcomed "open and balanced" hearings on the matter but that new rules will only chill investment in new broadband deployment--the argument that network operators have long used in their crusade against Net neutrality regulations.

The FCC is currently weighing whether degrading peer-to-peer traffic constitutes "reasonable" network management by Internet service providers and what to do about those who take steps that fall outside that realm. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has suggested that his agency may take action against Comcast and other providers who fail to disclose clearly to customers what they do to "manage" their networks.

McSlarrow said Thursday that he believes Comcast has always been transparent enough about its practices and that it's impractical for cable operators to reveal, on an application-by-application basis, how they manage their networks.

"If you're disclosing 8,000 things, no one's going to read these things," he said, adding that there's also a chance that "proprietary" information could get out.

Comcast, for its part, has said its slowing of "excessive" BitTorrent traffic at peak times falls within the bounds of "reasonable" network management. After reports of its peer-to-peer file-sharing manipulation trickled out, the company updated its terms of service to better reflect what customers should expect.

A network is a "very complex organism," McSlarrow told reporters, adding that he thinks engineers "would be stunned to know that we're actually having a conference call about decisions they make every day."