FCC Questions Comcast's Treatment of Competing VoIP

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Officials at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission have questioned why Comcast, the largest provider of cable-modem broadband service in the U.S., exempts its own VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) from traffic congestion slowdowns, but doesn't offer the same protections to competing VoIP services running over its network.

"We ... ask that you provide a detailed justification for Comcast's disparate treatment of its own VoIP service as compared to that offered by other VoIP providers on its network," two high-level FCC staffers wrote in a Sunday letter to Comcast. The letter comes about five months after the FCC ruled that Comcast had violated net neutrality policies in slowing some P-to-P (peer-to-peer) traffic.

Comcast, in September 19 documents explaining a new network-management plan to the FCC, said VoIP service could sound "choppy" during times of heavy network congestion. But Comcast didn't distinguish between its own VoIP service and competing ones, said the FCC letter, written by Dana Shaffer, chief of the FCC's wireline competition bureau, and Matthew Berry, the agency's general counsel. The September Comcast filing does not distinguish between Comcast's VoIP service and competing ones, the FCC letter says.

"Comcast's website, however, suggests that such a distinction does in fact exist," says the FCC letter. "The website claims that 'Comcast Digital Voice is a separate facilities-based IP phone service that is not affected by this [new network management] technique.'"

The Sunday FCC letter suggests Comcast was playing down its VoIP network management techniques. "We request that Comcast explain why it omitted from its filings with the Commission the distinct effects that Comcast's new network management technique has on Comcast's VoIP offering versus those of its competitors," the FCC letter says.

Comcast's new network management plan was required by the FCC after commissioners ruled in August that the broadband provider's decision to slow some P-to-P traffic violated the agency's network neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or slowing Internet traffic or applications.

Comcast has appealed the FCC decision, saying the agency didn't have authority to enforce a net-neutrality policy statement or to dictate network-management practices. But last March, Comcast announced it would move away from application-specific network management.

News reports in late 2007 unveiled Comcast's practice of slowing some BitTorrent traffic. Comcast later said it was slowing traffic only at times of peak congestion, but the FCC and other groups disputed that the traffic management was limited.

A Comcast spokesman, asked if the company's treatment of competing VoIP service violated net-neutrality rules, said the broadband provider has "complied with the FCC's order regarding our congestion management practices."

"We are reviewing the FCC staff's letter," added Sena Fitzmaurice, the Comcast spokeswoman.

The FCC's letter suggests that if Comcast wants its VoIP service to be treated as a telecommunications service separate from its broadband service, the service should be subject to traditional telecom regulations, including a myriad of taxes.

Free Press, a media reform group, praised the FCC for questioning Comcast about its VoIP network management techniques. In October, Free Press complained to the FCC that Comcast was treating its VoIP differently than it was treating other VoIP service, without disclosing that information to the agency.

"This letter is a positive sign that the FCC's Comcast decision was not a one-and-done action on net neutrality," said Ben Scott, Free Press' policy director. "An open Internet cannot tolerate arbitrary interference from Internet service providers. Congress and the FCC must close any legal loopholes that permit anti-competitive behavior to thrive."

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