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Battle over Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission held a rare public hearing at Harvard Law School yesterday to hear arguments in a fight over what some call the future of the Internet.

The regulators heard from cable companies, academics, and consumer advocates. At issue is whether Internet access providers can favor certain types of online activities over others. WBUR's Business and Technology Reporter Curt Nickisch has the story.

TEXT OF STORY

CURT NICKISCH: The timing couldn't have been better. Picture this: five FCC commissioners sit up front, faced by a panel of experts. It's a spacious auditorium, standing room only. So everyone can see, the proceedings are being projected onto a huge screen behind the commissioners. Eric Klinker's up there at the moment. He's works for BitTorrent, a company whose technology lets online users swap large files. And he's telling the panel that the cable company Comcast has been blocking BitTorrent users.

ERIC KLINKER: And uh, not sure what's happening there, but...

NICKISCH: That's when the video projection turns off, and then the screen starts to roll up into storage.

KLINKER: "I've been blocked! (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)

NICKISCH: Being cut off when others got to speak uninterrupted went to the heart of the FCC hearing. The regulatory panel is investigating how the cable company and Internet provider Comcast is restricting so-called peer-to-peer file sharing. Comcast executive David Cohen vigorously defended his company's right to manage traffic, saying the network would otherwise crash. So he said his company sometimes slows the high bandwidth traffic of some of its customers.

DAVID COHEN: All of this is designed to have a minimal, virtually imperceptible effect on a small number of users. The result of course is a wildly positive impact on the Internet experience of many more users who subscribe to our services.

NICKISCH: But most experts disagreed with Cohen's description. David Reed from MIT said he did an experiment; and found that Comcast is essentially forging network transmissions between users to make it look like each wants to end the transfer. Reed says that's deceptive and intrusive, and violates standard Internet practices for reducing congestion.

DAVID REED: Comcast's secretive attempt to apply non-standard management practices creates serious problems.

NICKISCH: And others accused the cable giant of stopping file sharing not in the interest of its customers, but in its own interest. Comcast sees potential growth not as much in its TV business, but in using its bandwidth to deliver on-demand movies for instance. Competitors who use file sharing technology say the cable giant is trying to put them out of business by slowing their streams. Gilles BianRosa is a Harvard MBA who's now the CEO of one such company, Vuze.

GILLES BIANROSA: We compete with Comcast in the delivery of video content over the Internet. What we have here is a horse race. And in this race Comcast owns the racetrack.

NICKISCH: BianRosa asked the FCC to make the race even by clarifying what Internet providers are allowed to do when they manage network traffic. And Marvin Ammori from the consumer advocacy group Free Press told the regulators to draw the line now, or else, he says:

MARVIN AMMORI: Your Internet provider will pick your websites for you. Online companies and device makers like Vuze will need a permission slip to innovate. And providers will be able to profit from artificial scarcity.

NICKISCH: After the hearing, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he's prepared to stop Internet providers from hobbling traffic. That's a key statement from a Republican who generally favors the market sorting things out on its own. Martin and the rest of the panel may get some help from Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey. He introduced a bill last week that would give the FCC more authority on the issue.

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

This program aired on February 26, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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