The MAP Strikes Back

I called out Harold Feld of MAP, one of the FCC petitioners that started the FCC’s broadband circus, for his failure to respond to the BitTorrent/Comcast deal in my latest article in The Register, and he’s pretty upset about it:

There must be something in the air that has turned Comcast from a fighter to a lover. Apparently, Comcast and BitTorrent have kissed and made up, Brian Roberts has stood barefoot in the snow beneath Kevin Martin’s window at Canossa, and all is now supposed to be well in the world. Nothing to see here, move along, these aren’t the droids we’re looking for, and once again the magic of the market solves everything.

I would have written earlier, but I was having a flashback to when AOL Time Warner committed to creating an interoperable instant messenger. Then I was flashing on when AT&T Broadband and Earthlink “solved” the original open access problem by negotiating a contract and thus proving that “the market” would guarantee that independent ISPs would be able to resell cable modem service just like they were reselling DSL. Then I woke up vomiting. I always have a bad reaction to whatever folks smoke to conclude “the free market solves everything” especially when (a) this was the result of a regulatory two-by-four applied directly to Comcast’s scalp, repeatedly; and (b) nothing actually happened except for a real and sincere comitment to yack about stuff — at least until the regulators go away. Still, like Lucy and Charlie Brown, there are some folks for whom this just never gets old.

So while I’m glad to see Comcast forced to play the penitent, confess wrongdoing, and appear to give a full surrender, and while I generally like the idea of industry folks and ISPs getting together to actually do positive stuff on internet architecture issues, I think wild celebrations from the anti-regulators and the expectation that we can declare “Mission Accomplished” and go home is a shade premature. Indeed, the only people who believe this announcement actually solves anything are — by and large — those who didn’t believe there was a problem in the first place. I believe the technical term for such folks is “useful idiots.”

Harold has clearly been drinking the Vuze Kool-Aid, probably from the same cup as FCC chairman Kevin Martin. Chairman Martin may not mind Vuze exploiting the FCC petition process to score free public relations points, but I think it’s an abuse. Here’s my response, cross-posted from Harold’s comment section:

Given that you’ve disavowed any connection between your blog and Media Access Project, it’s interesting that this particular petitioner is still officially silent on the Comcast/BitTorrent deal. Was it just too stunning for MAP comment? I put the question here because I figure their Senior VP would have some insight.

But anyhow and to what you do say, there’s one big point that jumps out from the way you use the term “degrade” when talking about Internet access and the Internet in general. You don’t seem to appreciate that the Internet is a series of shared communication channels that rely on statistical multiplexing. In a system of this type (which is very different from the telecom networks the FCC is used to regulating) every packet “degrades” every other packet.

We don’t have dedicated end-to-end paths through the network so we all share with each other. So in the first analysis we all degrade each other, and the ISPs and NSPs are stuck with the chore of deciding whose traffic goes through immediately, whose waits at any given millisecond, and whose is discarded. And Internet switches drop lots and lots of packets as a part of routine operation. This may upset you (as it apparently upsets Kevin Martin) but it is the way the system was designed. We all hammer the switches as hard as we can and they take what they can and drop the rest. Sorry, the Internet is not a telephone.

So there’s no such thing as an ISP that doesn’t “degrade” traffic in the ways that you and Kevin Martin allege is a unique property of Comcast’s current management system.

And while I like the method Comcast CTO Tony Werner described to me as in development better than the one that’s currently in production, I don’t consider either to be an illegitimate approach to traffic management within the real-world constraints of businesses that have to return profit to their shareholders. The Sandvine system has the unfortunate side-effect of making original seeds slow to take root, but I don’t think that’s an intentional bug.

I also don’t buy the fiction that Vuze is a true competitor to Comcast and Verizon, and therefore don’t see an anti-competitive motive behind Comcast’s actions intended to affect Vuze. Given that Vuze has a business that relies on other people’s software (open source BitTorrent) moving other people’s content (Hollywood movies and TV) other still other people’s bandwidth (customers of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, et. al.) their problems are much larger than one method of traffic management versus another.Given that Vuze purchases just enough bandwidth to start original seeds, they actually aren’t affected by Comcast’s treatment of robo-seeders in any significant way.

Apparently you have a long-standing beef with the Comcast TV service specifically and mistrust of capitalism generally. That’s fine, but it’s not immediately relevant to the question of what does and doesn’t make rational traffic management on the Internet and its access network. And frankly, it’s the invocation of animus of that tangential sort that makes me question whether you actually have a framework for deciding questions of this sort.

Comcast has correctly pointed out that the some commissioners have vowed to do rule-making on the fly, which won’t stand up to legal scrutiny because it grossly exceeds the Commission’s authority and bypasses formal rule-making. If such an action is taken, it will be struck down by the court to the embarrassment of the commissioners’ eventual private sector employers.

And finally, Om Malik is mistaken about the relative market shares of BitTorrent, Inc. and Vuze. BT owns uTorrent, the most populat BT client, while Vuze simply distributes a client based on the open source Python-language client that BitTorrent founder Bram Cohen wrote a long time ago.

Vuze filed their FCC complaint as a publicity stunt. And while it’s understandable that an under-funded startup would resort to this means of free publicity, only the truly credulous believe they have the standing they assert; it’s more like a case of delusions of grandeur.

Harold tries a little misdirection, but quickly gives up. We can have a technical solution to the P2P traffic glut, or we can have a government mandate, take your pick.

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