Comcast rolls out brand new bandwidth throttles
Faces new suits for bagging BitTorrents
Update: This story originally quoted from a piece from The New York Times. But The Times has largely rewritten its story, and after several calls, Comcast has responded to our requests for comment, so we have removed all quotes from The Times.
Comcast is testing a brand new means of throttling traffic on its cable-based internet service.
Today, The New York Times reports, America's second largest ISP rolls out these tests in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and Warrenton, Virginia. Users who exceed an unspecified bandwidth threshold will have their connections slowed by an unspecified amount for an unspecified period of time.
For at least a year - and maybe more - Comcast has used TCP reset flags to throttle BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer traffic, claiming that P2P file sharing causes severe congestion on its network. But after some heat from the US Federal Communications Commission, the company says it will drop the practice by the end of the year, adopting a means of controlling network congestion that's protocol agnostic.
And it looks like it has settled on a general method.
The tests in Pennsylvania and Virginia will be followed by a third in Colorado Springs, Colorado later this summer. In each market, Comcast will use a different breed of hardware - and a different set of rules - to control congestion. The company will then determine which setup makes the most sense for a nationwide roll-out.
What hardware is the company testing? What rules? Comcast won't say. But company spokesman Charlie Douglas did say this: "We're looking at three hardware-software solutions. And we're trying to figure out which one delivers the best overall customer experience."
Which begs the question: How can you determine the best customer experience if customers don't know what they're getting? If you're a Comcast subscriber in Chambersburg, Warrenton, or Colorado Springs, you have no way of knowing when your connection might slow, how long it will slow, or how slow it will get.
Douglas also said only "a very, very small number of people would be impacted." That would be people be "who are engaged in disproportionate bandwidth usage as a result of, for example, sustained and continuous downloading." And he points out that the throttling will only occur during "periods of network congestion."
These are tests, so we'll cut the company some slack. We would hope that when this does officially roll out, Comcast tells the world everything. After all, the chief problem with the company's BitTorrent throttling is that customers weren't told what was going on. Even in the face of an FCC investigation, Comcast refuses to tell all.
And that's the subject of three new lawsuits against the company. Today, a Washington, D.C. law firm announced a trio of state-based suits that accuse the big-name ISP of "deceiving and misleading" consumers.
"Comcast has essentially not given consumers what they paid for," says August J. Matteis, Jr., a partner with Gilbert Randolph LLP. "They didn't disclose and they lied about what they were selling to consumers. They were throttling [P2P traffic] and they didn't tell people about it and they covered up that they were doing it."
The suits - filed in California, Illinois, and New Jersey - follow a similar suit the firm filed in D.C. back in February. All four are based on state consumer protection laws. Another Commcast-BitTorrent suit is pending in federal court. ®
The Way It Works
Bit Torrent is a full mesh distribution model that profoundly reduces the burden at any particular measuring point as compared to the client-server model where everyone on the planet that wants the new Linux must get it from one server. In fact, the peculiar nature of Bit Torrent works BETTER the more people want a file such as the new Linux, whereas with a traditional model, trying to download Linux directly from RedHat at the same time ten million other people are doing so is a "non starter". You see, parts of what I am trying to get might be available from people on my same cable segment and thus the "internet" won't be involved whatsoever for those particular parts or chunks of the file I want.
Torrents emanate from a published website and have digital hashes (SHA-1) to ensure file integrity. As such, Bit Torrent is culturally very different from Kazaa or Limewire. Kazaa and LimeWire make no claims about the files you get from total strangers in Tanzania.
With BitTorrent, you *might* get a bit from Tanzania, but not the whole file, so there is no way to infect your computer with an altered file. You only get pieces called "chunks" (A chunk is rather big, typically 256kbytes I've read somewhere). Each chunk has a digital hash to ensure that even the chunk was not altered and you get the list of hashes from the original publisher.
LimeWire/Kazaa: Unsafe, no assurances, easily tampered files, your download speed cannot be faster than the uploader's speed. You expose an entire folder of your own files to the world (did I mention unsafe?).
Bit Torrent: Safer. Usually you can discover the author and provenance of the file. Tampering by middle-men is as close to impossible as makes no difference. Because of distribution, your download speed can be profoundly faster than any particular contributor ("seeders") upload speeds, including your own upload speed. What you are sharing is, by default, ONLY what you are currently downloading; people cannot browse your hard disk.
McAfee antivirus has a mechanism similar to Bit Torrent, they call it "Rumor". The idea is that one PC will download the current antivirus signature files and then publish it on a private webserver that is installed on your PC without a lot of notice to you. Other PC's on your local subnet will get it from whichever one has the most recent files.
"I think "Passive" makes you use only one connection."
Ummmm, no. It means the client initiates every transaction (thus the server is passive).
The suits have merit
Actually I think the lawsuits have merit. Its not about CC interfering with packets etc. They can if they decide and notify their customers of such changes. Their TOS states they can change terms at anytime. The problem here, is CC did so without notifying their subscriber base. And continued to deny these facts when confronted by the press and the FCC themselves. CC is in major trouble now. There is plenty of documentation that will prove they failed to communicate these changes and it will be very difficult if not impossible for them to spin this any other way. In states like California where there are strong consumer laws, I see major fines coming forward. And I think Comcast needs to be fined heavily since they have been guilty of deceptive practices for too long now. There really needs to be an example made here and I don't believe for one second these lawsuits are frivolous.