After facing public hearings before the Federal Communications Commission and widespread protests from consumers and network-neutrality advocates, Comcast announced earlier this year that it would stop blocking peer-to-peer traffic from the BitTorrent system. Instead, it promised to adopt a protocol-agnostic scheme to slow heavy users during peak traffic times without necessarily targeting BitTorrent P2P users.
This week, the No. 1 cable provider is launching the first tests of its new system in Chambersburg, Pa., and Warrenton, Va. Customers in those areas received e-mails advising them of the tests.
The tests, which start Thursday, come the same week that Time Warner Cable -- Comcast's chief competitor -- announced it would experiment with a metered usage plan that charges customers extra if they exceed set bandwidth caps. In that test, customers in Beaumont, Tex., will be charged $1 for every gigabyte of data they consume in excess of their cap.
Metered Pricing is Here
Time Warner is offering two data plans in the test area -- a $29.95 plan that offers 768 kilobytes per second and a five-gigabyte limit, and a $54.90 plans that offers 15 megabits per second and a 40GB limit.
Comcast also said it is considering a 250GB ceiling, but it hasn't made a decision. "We want to deliver the best online experience for our customers," a Comcast spokesperson said. "We can do it really quickly and without the need for government intervention."
George Ou, a network-architecture consultant in Silicon Valley, decried Time Warner's move toward metered usage. "The metered Internet has been tried and tested and rejected by the consumers overwhelmingly since the days of AOL," he said in an e-mail. "Metered pricing will never eliminate the need for network management, but good network management can easily eliminate the need for metered pricing."
The 'Enemy of More'
Comcast's practice of blocking BitTorrent users energized network-neutrality advocates, who called on the FCC to more closely regulate how Internet providers treat customers. Groups like FreePress have consistently said that the need for cable companies to manage their networks reflects a failure to invest in network infrastructure.
One chief advocate of network neutrality, Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, told the FCC, "It's my view that if you're going to create an incentive to build broader infrastructure, just as modems used to create an incentive (people would buy faster modems to get faster connections), providing a way for people to provide a signal that they want to be high-bandwidth users versus low-bandwidth users, I think is an important way to do it."
While private businesses and consumers are free to agree to any pricing model they want, Ou said, "what I do have a huge problem with is FreePress and their ilk pushing the government to believe that metered pricing is a substitute for network management and that the government might try and legislate in such a way that pushes ISPs to metered pricing."
From a pure business perspective, cable companies are shooting themselves in the foot, wrote Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor and media blogger. "The essence of the media model is that you want your customers to consume more and more: more pageviews, more shows, more podcasts, more, more," Jarvis wrote. "TW Cable is making itself the enemy of more."