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BitTorrent to Comcast: Let's be friends

q&a BitTorrent's CEO says Comcast would have more success managing its network if the two companies worked together.

q&a BitTorrent's CEO wants to make peace with cable operator Comcast.

The two companies have been at opposite ends of a raging debate over how network operators should manage their networks. Last year, Comcast admitted that it had been "throttling" or slowing down Internet traffic using a peer-to-peer protocol originally created by BitTorrent's founder Bram Cohen. The cable operator argued it had targeted the protocol because the peer-to-peer traffic was overwhelming its network resources.

Doug Walker
BitTorrent CEO Doug Walker BitTorrent

The situation has ignited a firestorm of protest from broadband subscribers and Net neutrality supporters who say that Comcast has no right to monkey with network traffic. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating the situation and has held public hearings to determine what level of network management is adequate. The agency is still considering whether to take action against Comcast.

CNET sat down with the BitTorrent CEO, Doug Walker, who replaced Cohen as chief executive last year. Walker acknowledged the challenges facing Comcast and other service providers as they try to keep up with network demand. But he said Comcast should be looking to partner with BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer content distributors instead of trying to slow down their traffic.

Q: Do you think BitTorrent has been unfairly singled out by Comcast because the open-source protocol has been used to distribute pirated content?
Walker: Yes I do. But singling out BitTorrent or any other type of traffic is just plain wrong. For one, it's wrong because of the contractual relationship Comcast has or had--they keep changing the rules as we speak on their Web site--with their subscribers. It did not distinguish between any different forms of content. So in other words, the end users didn't think there was going to be any issue with consuming this category of content.

Also businesses like ours which invest hundreds of millions of dollars developing new value sets did not know that there was going to be any kind of an issue with our technology or service running on Comcast's network. So from that perspective managing traffic without letting people know is the wrong thing to do.

Another issue is that BitTorrent files could be very small or they could be very large. By casting a net over all things BiTorrent, you're actually impacting the users of small files who are causing no network degradation whatsoever as well as the ones using large files. So how do you distinguish between the two?

But BitTorrent is often used to distribute pirated content . Isn't that part of the reason why it's being targeted?
Walker: There is pirated BitTorrent content on the Internet. In fact, there is a lot of pirated content that uses the BitTorrent protocol. But there are hundreds of companies out there that are using peer-to-peer, and BitTorrent in particular, to distribute perfectly legal copyright protected content, including our store.

But you know, BitTorrent and peer-to-peer isn't the real problem.

What is the real problem?
Walker: The real issue is that video is growing so rapidly. The stats are just absolutely overwhelming. In December, 3.2 billion YouTube videos were shipped in America. In December, 330 million MySpace videos were shipped. And in December alone, 141 million people in the United States downloaded video.

Video to the PC and video to the TV is expected to grow by a factor of 10 over the next three to four years. The real issue here is that consumers want rich media over the Internet. BitTorrent just happens to be the most efficient and effective way to do that. And so they are using the protocol to get that video downloaded in an inexpensive way.

If Comcast and other operators, like Time Warner and AT&T, had just recognized the oh-so-obvious signs of what has been happening with Internet video, the proliferation of consumer devices, and the growth of high-definition content, they would have kept up with the rest of the world in terms of their networks. But instead they have done the right thing in terms of serving their shareholders, but the wrong thing in serving the American public.

How so?
Walker: Just look at the numbers. Comcast is planning $7 billion worth of stock buy-backs by 2009. It's giving 25-cent dividends, and it grew 24 percent. These guys are protecting a very good traditional business model. But the problem is that everyone in the U.S. is going to pay for it. Because on the one hand we say we want Google and YouTube. We want MySpace and all of these Internet enabled businesses. But then we say, "Sorry we aren't going to let you operate on a network that makes any sense as compared to the rest of the world."

"The protocol that they (Comcast) cite as their issue is actually the technology that can help fix their problem."

So what should be done? Comcast is saying that its network is being choked by all this peer-to-peer traffic.
Walker: First, our perspective is that neither BitTorrent nor any other kind of traffic should be singled out. And secondly, we could actually help Comcast solve this problem. We recognize that they need to manage their network. But the protocol that they cite as their issue is actually the technology that can help fix their problem. And we have reached out to them. Actually, Tony Werner, who is the CTO of Comcast, is an adviser to BitTorrent. And very few people know that.

Walker: Yes, the plot thickens.

It seems really strange that they would go after BitTorrent traffic if they were already working with you guys. What did you say to him when the news broke that they were throttling your traffic. Did you tell him to call off the dogs?
Walker: Well, this is the funny thing about a company that is as large as Comcast. On the one hand, Tony and his team can be working with us in the background long before this story broke to figure out the kinds of things we can be doing together.

And on the other hand, other parts of Comcast are throttling back BitTorrent traffic at the same time. Someone catches them doing that. And so all of a sudden the public opinion is completely on the side of BitTorrent and Comcast is cast in the spotlight, and they have to defend their actions. The funny thing is we could be helping them find the solution.

How could BitTorrent be helping them?
Walker: Let me create some context for you. Comcast announced recently that it could get to a speed of about 50 megabits per second transfer rate symmetrical by 2010. Japan is already twice that speed. And by the way, they could get there to half the people in the U.S.

So by 2010, half the population will get half the speed that Japan gets today. BitTorrent's technology can't help get Comcast to 100 Mbps symmetrical speeds like Japan this year or next year, but it can help make the network more efficient tomorrow.

I look at that and say, if there is technology that is available today that can help make your network more efficient. Why wouldn't you be reaching out?

What has happened since the whole traffic throttling stuff was revealed? Was the CTO completely embarrassed?
Walker: Tony is actually a really great guy, who is very knowledgeable in this space. He understands the issues completely. And he is working under the weight of a very large corporation. We are continuing to have a dialogue. I am hopeful that we are going to be able to work together in the future as this whole thing works itself out and takes its natural course. If there is anyway we can help Comcast make its network more efficient, we'd like to be a part of that solution.

You mentioned earlier that you understand Comcast's need to manage its network, but should it be able to do whatever it takes to do that?
Walker: I think the answer is, "No." They should not have the right to do whatever they want. I think anybody who manages a business or a highway needs to find a way to make it work the best way they can. But you can't do that without rules. What has happened today when you listen to the FCC hearings is that basically Comcast's position has been: "We are the parent you are the children. And we'll tell you when we need to manage the network. And we won't tell you exactly what that means. Leave it up to us. And go on about your business."

That is completely unacceptable. Of course, they have to manage their network. But what's unacceptable is they don't tell people what they are doing or how they are doing it. And they single out protocols like BitTorrent as a way to make that happen.

Should the FCC take action against Comcast?
Walker: I think we haven't learned enough yet as part of the hearing process. I think what I would like to believe is that as a result of listening to public opinion that Comcast will take action on its own. I think there should be less lawyering, quite frankly. They are caught under a spotlight right now. I would hope that Comcast puts its hand-up and says, "You're right we need to get to world class standards and here is how we are going to do it."

What level of network management is acceptable
Walker: I don't know the answer to that question. I think that becomes the debate once Comcast discloses what it's really doing. I would say that what needs to happen is there needs to be a place where Comcast's business model and the responsibility to shareholders actually matches up to what the American people need to be productive.

"The solution is so obvious for this problem. We should all be working together."

But do you think that laws or regulation are necessary to protect Network neutrality?
Walker: I think we have to be very careful. We don't want to interfere with the natural rules of business. Competition has served us well for a very long time. I am just suggesting there is not enough of it to drive us towards the standards that we should expect in the United States. The broadband market is a duopoly right now. I think these things have to be looked at very carefully. And I think that's the purpose of the FCC to look at what can be done. However, I do believe in the concept of Network neutrality.

AT&T has talked about policing the Internet to stop the distribution of pirated content. Should the network operators become traffic cops?
Walker: No, that is not the job of network operators at all. Can you imagine the kinds of security issues that come with policing the network? I mean to what level do you police? That becomes the big question. Once you start to open the envelope and take a look at content people are moving back and forth, I think you have violated all kinds of personal trusts and that is completely unacceptable.

Time Warner has talked about metering traffic usage to manage its network. What do you think about that?
Walker: Metering is interesting. It gets back to the shareholder versus what services the public deserves. For example, if you meter my mom and how much she uses the Internet, her bill will go from $60 a month to $1, because she doesn't use much. But if you meter me and charge me for how much I use, then my bill will go from $60 a month to $200. That works fine if we are both charged based on usage. But what Time Warner is talking about doing is everyone still pays the basic rate, but whoever uses more is charged more. So that serves the business interests. And it doesn't do much for the consumer.

But the truth is that Time Warner wouldn't have to do this if they worked with P2P companies like BitTorrent to make their networks more efficient. The solution is so obvious for this problem. We should all be working together.