Drawing a shaky line on P2P shaping

It was Comcast on the podium defending itself from charges of P2P blocking this week, but it was service providers of all shapes and sizes left wondering if the FCC and Congress would soon be telling them how to manage their networks.

Comcast took a beating at this week’s FCC hearing on P2P bandwidth management. It probably expected it. FCC commissioners seemed most upset that Comcast seemed to be doing its management clandestinely, promising “unlimited” bandwidth but behind the scenes delaying packets during peak hours.

Of course, since it’s not illegal for Comcast to manage its network in such a way, it’s not exactly clear why Comcast would make such algorithms and tactics public in the first place.

Both the FCC’s broadband management hearings and the latest attempts by Congress to re-introduce Net Neutrality legislation center around “reasonable” guidelines rather than hard-and-fast mandates and the idea that network management choices should be “open and transparent” rather than being made in a “black box that the American people [have] precious little opportunity to peek into,” said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps at the hearing.

“While networks may have reasonable practices — they obviously cannot operate without taking some reasonable steps — but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block access to certain services,” said FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

So what happens next? It’s unclear – even in Martin’s mind – what exactly the FCC can * do * about how service providers manage their traffic, even if they do find Comcast’s actions discriminatory.

The most likely outcome would seem to be requiring carriers to provide clearer upfront descriptions of their traffic-shaping tactics as part of their broadband service offerings. More problematic likely will be carrier use of deep packet inspection (DPI) technology to make network management decisions. Peaking into user content – even anonymously – will continue to raise flags with consumer groups and the commission. Charges that Comcast has been “forging” P2P packets don’t help either.

All of which makes it likely the FCC * will * attempt to define the line between reasonable and unreasonable broadband network management – just don’t expect the line to be anything but a shaky one.

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