Comcast has made no final decisions on how to manage network congestion, despite news reports Wednesday that it will slow traffic for heavy users for up to 20 minutes during times of peak network use.
Comcast has been looking into new network management practices after the furor caused by an Associated Press report last October that said the cable modem service provider was quietly slowing BitTorrent P-to-P (peer-to-peer) traffic as a tool to fight network congestion.
Net neutrality advocates called on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to take action against Comcast, and early this month, the FCC voted 3-2 to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing specific applications on its network.
Comcast has been conducting tests on new network management techniques since the end of May, said Charlie Douglas, a Comcast spokesman. Among the leading options is to slow all Web traffic from heavy users for up to 20 minutes during times of heavy network traffic.
When the congestion is resolved in under 20 minutes, the heavy users' traffic would be slowed for shorter times, sometimes for only a minute or two, he said. Heavy users' traffic would still move over the Internet, but it would "become de-prioritized" during times of congestion, Douglas said.
This approach would be "protocol agnostic," Douglas added. By not blocking specific applications, Comcast likely would comply with the FCC's Aug. 1 vote.
Asked why Comcast doesn't slow all users' traffic during times of congestion, Douglas said it's not fair to subscribers who aren't clogging up the pipes. "It's the heaviest of users that are directly contributing to the degradation of the service for the other people on the network," he said.
Representatives of Free Press and Public Knowledge, two digital rights advocacy groups that filed a complaint against Comcast for slowing P-to-P traffic, expressed reservations about Comcast's apparent new direction.
"It's an interesting reflection on the claim that there is a free market for broadband," said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge. "If there was competition, could you slow down your best customers?"
Comcast was "dishonest" in the past about its network management practices, added Ben Scott, Free Press policy director. The broadband provider originally denied it was degrading BitTorrent streams.
"We have to be skeptical and vigilant," Scott said. "The FCC has required them to disclose all the details -- so we look forward to seeing that before we can fully evaluate. Any move that doesn't involve blocking consumers' access to the Internet is a positive step -- but we won't know for sure about this particular practice until we see the details."
On Wednesday, the FCC released the full text of its Aug. 1 order prohibiting Comcast from blocking legal Web applications. Public Knowledge and Free Press praised the order, with Scott calling it "a major milestone in Internet policy."