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Comcast rolls out brand new bandwidth throttles

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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. ®

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