Comcast vs. BitTorrent, What’s Next?

Yesterday, the FCC ruled that Comcast's network management practices that specifically targeted BitTorrent users, were unfair. The ruling is a small victory for Net Neutrality, but it wont stop ISPs from going after the heavy bandwidth users, not at all.

comcastComcast was ordered to stop slowing down BitTorrent users before the end of the year. In addition, the company has to disclose all “network managing” practices.

The FCC’s final decision came exactly a year after we first reported on the issue. Initially, Comcast flatout denied that they were slowing down BitTorrent users, but after AP confirmed our reports, mainstream media picked it up and the FCC got involved. FCC argues that Comcast’s actions are unfair because they specifically target BitTorrent, not any other protocols.

Good news right? So BitTorrent users will soon be able to download at blazing speeds again? Well, not really. A neutral net wont stop ISPs from slowing down their customers. Now they simply have to slow down everyone – and that’s exactly what their plan is. Comcast already said that they will move on, and throttle bandwidth hogs at peak times when needed. On top of that, they are enforcing a monthly bandwidth limit, not hesitating to disconnect people who use more than they should.

Comcast is taking these measures under the “reasonable network management” flag. However, what is reasonable now (if it is), might not be one or two years from now. The problem is that the ISPs are the ones who decide what the limits should be, meaning they can pretty much do whatever they want.

Several ISPs have already started to experiment with new tools to prevent customers from using too much bandwidth. Comcast will slow down all heavy bandwidth users, and Time Warner Cable is testing metered plans, where users will pay for the bandwidth they transfer. Worrying developments, to say the least.

Some might not see a problem with metered plans. We pay for water and gasoline in pretty much the same way. This is indeed true, but there’s also a danger in metering the Internet. It will restrict innovation (heavy bandwidth apps), and the use of high bandwidth video streaming may become something for the elite.

One thing is clear, BitTorrent users will be the main targets of these new “business models”. It was therefore surprising to see comments from Eric Klinker, Chief Technology Officer of BitTorrent, on these initiatives. “I think what Comcast and Time Warner Cable are doing is a great first step,” Klinker told Cnet. “It gets ISPs out of the business of deciding which applications are important and which aren’t. But there are enhancements to the peer-to-peer protocol, in particular, that can make it easier on all ISPs.”

Net neutrality is not the Holy Grail though – a neutral net is useless if it’s slower than a biased one. Klinker agreed on this, and told us that he doesn’t think that these new business models, or network management practices, are a good long term strategy. “This is a step in the right direction because ISPs are indeed making their networks more “neutral” without new legislation requiring them to do so,” he told TorrentFreak. “But make no mistake, bandwidth caps and metered plans are bad for the Internet and could stunt the adoption and growth of all broadband services.”

Network expert Robb Topolski, who was the first to document Comcast’s unfair network management practices, thinks that ISPs might experiment with new network management tools, but that these wont stick. When we asked him whether he thinks the FCC ruling will lead to more bandwidth caps and metered plans, he said: “If it does, then something has gone wrong with competition. Customers clearly don’t want metered plans and bandwidth caps. There might be some ISPs that experiment with these, but I don’t see it happening.”

Let’s hope Robb is right. Of course, we applaud the FCC ruling, but we have a strange feeling that ISPs will continue to fight their customers for a while. They should, of course, move on and invest in the future. BitTorrent is here to stay, files will get larger, and more bandwidth intensive services will surface, really.

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