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Comcast invests in P2P start-up

The cable operator enters into a strategic relationship with GridNetworks, a peer-to-peer upstart focused on video distribution.

Comcast is befriending another peer-to-peer software company in the hopes of finding a way to harness the power of P2P without choking its network.

On Monday, Comcast, the largest cable operator in the U.S., said it was entering a strategic relationship with the start-up GridNetworks, a company that makes software to manage peer-to-peer video traffic.

Comcast also said it has invested in the company's $9.5 million first round of funding, which was led by Panorama Capital. Cisco Systems also invested in this round of funding. Specific financial details of the funding have not been disclosed.

Comcast has become very interested in peer-to-peer companies after the company was accused last year of blocking or slowing down peer-to-peer traffic. The cable company argued that it was simply trying to manage its network, which has been overrun by customers using peer-to-peer applications. But the Federal Communications Commission and several consumer groups didn't buy the argument. After public pressure, Comcast said it would stop singling out specific kinds of traffic.

Other reports have recently surfaced that another cable operator has also been slowing down or blocking peer-to-peer traffic. Cox Communications was accused last week of slowing down BitTorrent traffic.

Peer-to-peer software can be both a curse and a blessing to service providers like Comcast and Cox. It distributes bandwidth-intensive content more economically than the traditional client-server model because it uses computers throughout a network to distribute pieces of the content. But even though the peer-to-peer model can dramatically cut costs for content distributors, it still uses an inordinate amount of bandwidth, which can choke some networks.

Companies, such as GridNetworks and BitTorrent, which invented a very popular peer-to-peer protocol, say they can help service providers harness the economic advantages inherent in the peer-to-peer protocol and help them run their networks more efficiently.

Comcast has already struck strategic partnerships to work with BitTorrent and Pando Networks.

"We are interested in the application of P2P concepts in a manner that puts the quality of the consumer experience first, and enables lawful distribution of copyrighted content while also efficiently utilizing the network," Tony Werner, Comcast chief technology officer, said in a statement.

Comcast hasn't said for certain which peer-to-peer technology it will use. But GridNetworks believes its software is uniquely designed to handle video distribution. And as cable operators distribute more high-definition content, they will need even more efficient means of distributing that content.