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.

FCC Hearing at Carnegie Mellon

Here’s the witness list for the July 21st FCC hearing at CMU:

4:00 p.m. Welcome/Opening Remarks
4:30 p.m. Panel Discussion 1 – The Future of Digital Media

Mark Cuban, Chairman & Co Founder HDNet, Owner – Dallas Mavericks
Jon Peha, Professor, Department of Engineering and Public Policy, and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
Mark Cavicchia, CEO, Founder & Director, WhereverTV
Matthew Polka, President & CEO, American Cable Association
Jake Witherell, Sim Ops Studios
John Heffner, Conviva
Representative, You Tube

5:30 p.m. Panel Discussion 2 – The Broadband of Tomorrow

David Farber, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Rahul Tongia, Senior Systems Scientist, Program on Computation, Organizations, and Society, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Robert W. Quinn, Jr., Senior Vice President – Federal Regulatory, AT&T, Inc.
Rey Ramsey, Chairman & CEO, One Economy Corporation
Rendall Harper, Board Member, Wireless Neighborhoods
Scott Wallsten, Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow, Technology Policy Institute
Marge Krueger, Administrative Director, Communications Workers of America District 13

6:30 p.m. Public Comment Period
8:30 p.m. Adjournment

A live web cast of the hearing will be available to the public on the FCC’s website at: http://www.fcc.gov/realaudio/#jul21 — you may also go to “FCC Meetings” from the homepage and then click on FCC Audio/Video events to access the web cast.


One significant detail: Google is breaking its silence on Net Neutrality Phase II by having its YouTube division speak. Another interesting thing is that Prof. Jon Peha gets a second bite at the apple. He’s the guy who made significantly false testimony at the Stanford hearing on the relationship of TCP Resets and BitTorrent transactions. I hope he corrects his former misstatements of fact.

Mark Cuban is always entertaining, but I imagine Prof. Farber will show the most insight.