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Cool Rules for the FCC: In the Lions's Den

Bennett goes to Boston

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Opinion Testifying as an expert witness on bandwidth management at the FCC's field hearing in snowy Cambridge this Monday was a heady experience. The hearing took place in a cramped corner of the Harvard Law School, a building that was already decorated with pickets, banners, and reporters when I arrived. Gingerly stepping through the snow in my California sailing shoes enabled me to avoid the protesters and find my way into the hallowed Ames courtroom. The room itself was full of buzz, and packed with a heavily Comcast-friendly crowd thanks to the cable giant's exploitation of the first-come, first-seated rule. Comcast had gamed the hearing's seating rules, hiring place-holders.

The composition of the crowd wasn't apparent until Comcast VP David Cohen got an overly enthusiastic round of applause at the end of his prepared remarks, but pretty much only then. They didn't hiss and boo - unlike the free-speech-loving neutralitarians who replaced them. I was invited to present an afternoon session.

The first panel was composed of the usual suspects from the policy community, Tim Wu, Yochai Benkler, and the engaging Chris Yoo, as well as Free Press's earnest general counsel, senior execs from Comcast and Verizon, and a local legislator. To one who's been engaged in this debate for five years now, none of their remarks was new or different except for Tim Wu's latest re-framing of the issue in terms of openness instead of neutrality. I can't say it's a huge improvement on the hand-waving vagueness front, but at least it's upbeat.

Comcast's David Cohen did a remarkable job of coherently summarizing his company's policies, which might have saved them a lot of grief had he delivered it about six months ago. Like Watergate, Comcast's cover-up was far worse than the crime, which wasn't actually criminal in this case. Yoo reminded folks that prioritization was a feature of NSFNet, and Verizon's Tom Taulke patiently explained the difference between short code and text messages.

The second panel featured one of my technical heroes, MIT professor David Clark, as well as Tim Berners-Lee's boss Danny Weitzner. Clark's old friend David Reed, the very presentable new CTO at BitTorrent, Eric Klinker, and a fellow from Sony I should have known from the home networking standards world, the well-rehearsed Scott Smyers, also featured. This panel placed ingenious pioneers on the same stage with defenders of tradition with instructions to reach a consensus about how to circumscribe network management practices in the interest of progress. Ingenuity was presumed to reside in an "innovative-new-application" (the phrase was repeated so often as to become a single word - "innovativenewapplication"), but in the end a portion was found in the management practices that squelch BitTorrent's excessive bandwidth demands.

If we stipulate, as most witnesses did, that peer-to-peer uses the Internet's classical mechanisms in a novel way, it's hard to sustain the argument that network operators must respond to the traffic streams it generates according to the dictates of official Internet standards. BitTorrent isn't an Internet standard and neither are the tools that manage it; they're gander and goose.

Hogging the neighborhood

BitTorrent certainly uses Internet Standard TCP as a delivery vehicle, but it does so in an unconventional way that essentially exploits a loophole to increase performance. At the end of the day, BitTorrent is just another file transfer program. It has thousands of predecessors, and they differ from each other in only three fundamental ways: scalability, resilience, and performance. It gets its performance boost from the ability of BitTorrent to access a deeper pool of bandwidth than a centralized program can; there's no way to transfer a (compressed) file faster than to take more bandwidth.

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