Damned if you do, screwed if you don’t

The FCC has finally noticed that reducing the Quality of Service of an Internet access service affects all the applications that use it, including VoIP. They’ve sent a harsh letter to Comcast seeking ammunition with which to pillory the cable giant, in one of Kevin Martin’s parting shots:

Does Comcast give its own Internet phone service special treatment compared to VoIP competitors who use the ISP’s network? That’s basically the question that the Federal Communications Commission posed in a letter sent to the cable giant on Sunday. The agency has asked Comcast to provide “a detailed justification for Comcast’s disparate treatment of its own VoIP service as compared to that offered by other VoIP providers on its network.” The latest knock on the door comes from FCC Wireline Bureau Chief Dana Shaffer and agency General Counsel Matthew Berry.

Readers of this blog will remember that I raised this issue with the “protocol-agnostic” management scheme Comcast adopted in order to comply with the FCC’s over-reaction to the former application-aware scheme, which prevented P2P from over-consuming bandwidth needed by more latency-sensitive applications. My argument is that network management needs to operate in two stages, one that allocates bandwidth fairly among users, and a second that allocates it sensibly among the applications in use by each user. The old Comcast scheme did one part of this, and the new scheme does the other part. I’d like to see both at the same time, but it’s not at all clear that the FCC will allow that. So we’re left with various forms of compromise.

The fundamental error that the FCC is making in this instance is incorrectly identifying the “service” that it seeks to regulate according to a new attempt to regulate services (skip to 13:30) rather than technologies.

Comcast sells Internet service, telephone service, and TV service. It doesn’t sell “VoIP service” so there’s no basis to this complaint. The Commission has made it very difficult for Comcast to even identify applications running over the Internet service, and the Net Neuts have typically insisted it refrain from even trying to do so; recall David Reed’s fanatical envelope-waving exercise at the Harvard hearing last year.

The telephone service that Comcast and the telephone companies sell uses dedicated bandwidth, while the over-the-top VoIP service that Vonage and Skype offer uses shared bandwidth. I certainly hope that native phone service outperforms ad hoc VoIP; I pay good money to ensure that it does.

This action says a lot about what’s wrong with the FCC. Regardless of the regulatory model it brings to broadband, it lacks the technical expertise to apply it correctly. The result is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” enforcement actions.

This is just plain silly. The only party the FCC has any right to take to task in this matter is itself.

The pirates who congregate at DSL Reports are in a big tizzy over this, naturally.

5 thoughts on “Damned if you do, screwed if you don’t”

  1. There are several serious concerns here.

    Firstly, it’s inappropriate for the FCC to be doing this before Comcast’s challenge to its previous ruling is settled. Comcast asserts (and I believe it’s 100% correct) that the FCC does not have the authority to regulate the Internet. It’s right there in the statute: it says that the Internet shall be “free of state or Federal regulation.” By going after Comcast again, the FCC is brazenly defying due process as well as the law.

    Secondly, Comcast’s VoIP offering is indeed “Voice over IP,” but it is not “Voice over Internet.” The distinction is important. The system uses IP, but doesn’t connect calls over the public Internet. It also does not consume Internet backbone bandwidth, which is a scarce and expensive resource. Therefore, any claims that the service constitutes some sort of discrimination vis-a-vis the Internet is ridiculous. The FCC is confusing IP with the Internet.

    Thirdly, the fact that VoIP might be impacted by Internet bandwidth limits is actually a result of Comcast having done what the FCC wanted. The FCC insisted that Comcast make it bandwidth management non-protocol-specific. Thus, Comcast can no longer prioritize VoIP over P2P. The FCC therefore has no right to complain; Comcast is only doing what it asked.

    Finally, if Comcast is doing something wrong by providing a separate channel on its cable for telephone service, isn’t the telephone company equally culpable for providing analog voice telephone calls over the same line as DSL service (where VoIP might likewise be degraded if the user is maxing out his or her bandwidth)? And if either a telco or a cable company provides video over the same cable or fiber, while the Internet bandwidth provided to the customer is limited, isn’t that the same thing?

    Carried to its logical conclusion, the FCC’s initiative would outlaw all systems in which the same physical medium is used for both Internet access and other services.

  2. You wrote:

    “The telephone service that Comcast and the telephone companies sell uses dedicated bandwidth, while the over-the-top VoIP service that Vonage and Skype offer uses shared bandwidth. I certainly hope that native phone service outperforms ad hoc VoIP; I pay good money to ensure that it does.”

    Interestingly enough, Comcast doesn’t agree with you. They have repeatedly claimed that CDV is NOT a telecommunications service, but is rather an information service, so as to avoid the regulations and intercarrier compensation schemes required of companies that provide phone service.


  3. Are all “information services” the same? I don’t think so.

    Comcast sells three services, digital voice, TV, and Internet, and each is configured for a particular level of latency and bandwidth, as they should be. The voice service – whether it’s billed as a telecommunications service or an information service – runs in its own channel and doesn’t contend with the Internet service. Vonage and Skype have to contend with all the applications their customer is running. If Comcast were allowed to sell the VoIP providers a fast lane, all of this could easily be resolved.

  4. I can sorta view this as a very dumb way to correct the regulatory double standard applied to the “Information Service” vs. “Telecommunications Service” hair splitting that applies different standards to LECs and cable co’s. Frankly making that determination on the basis of the underlying transport has been the white elephant in the FCC’s room for some time.

    However, the FCC can’t even do this right; considering Mr. Martin’s the same guy who let AT&T re-borganize instead of applying anti trust in an equitable standard to cable providers and more importantly content/advertising providers (viacom, Clear Channel, GE, etc.) who lobby for regulations that cripple innovation (DRM, stipulating that using store and forward delivery of video is tantamount to “rebroadcasting”, using contracts that make it difficult to deliver programming al a carte, etc.)

    In this game, everyone is a packet pusher; and I think it would be best if everyone competed on technological and service merits instead of regulatory manipulation.

  5. This is Martin’s parting shot at the cable industry, which he did everything possible to harm during his tenure as FCC Chairman (perhaps hoping to use this as the quid pro quo for a cushy executive position at a telco). It offers Comcast a no-win choice: degrade your telephone service to the level of “over the top” VoIP (which has to work over an Internet which was designed only for “best effort” delivery) or be consigned to the regulatory Hell which was the cause of the demise of the CLECs. This helps no one but the telephone companies.

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