Friday, November 30, 2007

Comcast Does Block BitTorrent

BitTorrent logo I have attempted to stay out of the discussion of whether Comcast blocks BitTorrent because it has been thoroughly discussed in many other forums.  This blog is about insight into the industry not jumping onto the  bandwagon slamming Comcast for disrupting BitTorrent traffic.  This evening I have chosen to reverse my decision because I believe that Comcast has overreacted in restricting BitTorrent and can do a better job implementing traffic shaping that can benefit all users.

There is no question that Comcast is blocking my BitTorrent downloads in Boulder.  Comcast logo At home I am a Comcast High Speed Internet subscriber dutifully paying $44 per month while complying with their Terms of Service agreement.  The video programs I am trying to download with BitTorrent are freely available in MPEG-2, MPEG-4, QuickTime, and Windows Media without DRM or copyright restrictions.  I just want to Miro to use the BitTorrent protocol to download the streams that I am subscribed.  For a couple of months, I have not been able to download these programs legally through the Comcast network.  I had no problem last week on Verizon's FiOS network downloading anything I wanted with BitTorrent.

I decided to call Comcast's technical support line to hear the "official" version of the story.  I expected to hear that they don't block BitTorrent but a technician stated that they block BitTorrent transfers because of copyright issues.  Apparently that person did not read the "official" company position on BitTorrent blocking.  I asked whether downloading up to 1 GB per day was considered excessive and they said no.  So I am not excessively downloading too much content and I have the right by the copyright holder to download the material.  Why is Comcast blocking BitTorrent?

Comcast believes that P2P consumes too much bandwidth and prevents other user from a satisfactory experience.  By preventing BitTorrent traffic, they have crudely implemented traffic shaping on their Internet service.  Personally I believe traffic shaping has its place in managing network performance.  In private networks managing applications and setting QoS parameters are legitimate tools to tune the network for optimum performance.  The use of traffic shaping and QoS on Internet services is a bit trickier.

Users of Internet access services expect that they can run any application that they desire over their connection, and they expect that they will always get adequate performance.  The two expectations can be mutually exclusive at times.  Whether you are on a DOCSIS or DSL connection, it is a shared medium.  ISP oversubscribe their networks to maximize utilization of the resources and keep costs down.  If everyone continuously floods the network with traffic doing anything they want, then everyone will not get the performance that they expect. 

This situation is why ISP utilize traffic shaping.  We cannot expect everyone on the Internet to behave as we expect so we need some policing to ensure that all users receive a consistent experience.  Just like in society, it is a question of how much policing is necessary.

Comcast has chosen to take the heavy hand and block all BitTorrent traffic.  Apparently they believe that any P2P traffic is too much.  I disagree with their conclusion.  I appreciate the fact that they are keeping my neighbors from running servers and excessively file sharing so I cannot stream decent video, but they do not need to block all legal P2P traffic.  If managed correctly P2P, like BitTorrent, can actually decrease traffic on their network.  P2P protocols have legitimate and practical uses.

Comcast should set their policies to limit the amount of bandwidth given to P2P protocols during times of congestion.  The Sandvine system has very granular controls to prioritize and manage protocols and applications based on available bandwidth, time-of-day, user, individual usage, and other parameters.  They can easily implement a policy that slows down the amount of available bandwidth for P2P traffic during peak times and let it fly at night when usage is low. 

Most P2P applications are working in the background sharing a file while the user is doing something else.  For instance, Miro could easily wait until network usage is low to start downloading the 700 MB "GigaOm Show."  Most of the time I watch it a day or two after it is first released.  Likewise, it could seed to other computers during quiet times at night.  Comcast could easily set policies to achieve the benefits of P2P protocols like BitTorrent without negatively impacting other customers.

Comcast's situation gets at the heart of the Net Neutrality discussion, and gives ammunition to those that believe that the Internet should be free of any QoS or traffic shaping.  When implemented appropriately, traffic shaping and QoS mechanisms should actually improve the performance of applications running on the network not impede it. 

This situation is a public relations nightmare for Comcast, but it will not hurt them financially because of our duopoly in the U.S.  The worst outcome will be some class action law suits and/or FCC fines.  If users had more of a choice, such as what open-access municipal networks bring, then you would see customers leaving Comcast.  Then again I would not be paying $44 per month for only 8 Mbit/s down and 768 kbit/s up.  Hopefully Comcast will change their policy on P2P protocols and implement more sophisticated traffic shaping through the Sandvine equipment before any wild eyed Congressmen or more lawyers get involved.