BostonNow Submission

March 28, 2008

As you know, I’m a professional writer and as such don’t like to give my services away for free. That’s the same as a plumber hooking up your shower for no money or a mechanic fixing your car and not charging you. But, in some cases it’s important to show what you can do before you can expect an outlet or publication to purchase future work.

That’s why, from time to time, there are columns and other written works here. It’s also why I’ve been doing my podcasts with regularity and why I sometimes share well-crafted opinion letters with different magazines and newspapers.

Today, I’ve submitted the following blog entry to the online and printed free Boston daily, BostonNow. I’ve submitted quite a few pieces in the past but have always given my readers the chance to read them on my sites as well. Nothing has changed except I’m explaining the process. So, below is today’s entry. Enjoy…


Comcast Still Not Shaping Up

Jumping online before the shower in the morning to check email, clicking over to Twitter and iChat during the workday with friends and colleagues, and surfing blogs and Websites in the evening after work.

None of this would be pleasant or even possible without the speed and reliability of the communication networks that span the globe.

You know the names of the big players and the speeds they’re currently promising, but have you really taken a hard look at the contract you sign and what you really get for your $19, $35, $49 or even $70 per month?

It’s amazing that we can almost instantly share a video with someone across the country and that we can talk on the phone over the Internet in real time, but what might surprise you is the control the ISPs have over what you send and if the material you’re downloading or uploading even gets to its destination.

In a comment that Comcast made last August, they denied that it used any ‘packet-shaping’ methods to affect its customers’ files.

For the uninitiated, here’s a simplified description of the process…

The ISP uses software that allows traffic to flow upstream and downstream efficiently. When the software encounters a situation where one user is taking up more than a ‘normal’ amount a bandwidth, the software turns down the flow to that person so that all other users can keep their efficient speeds.

In the case of people who use the Internet as their phone service or to share music and video files, the shaping becomes a little more sinister as the software chokes their data flow to a crawl. In most cases, the decision to choke off or dramatically slow down access is based on the types of data packets the provider’s software sees being transmitted.

The excuse for this behavior is that people who use too much bandwidth are taking away speed and access from others by hogging the lines. That’s patently false. Studies have shown, and the infrastructure is so robust, that even with P2P file sharing, VOIP (voice over IP) phone use and other heavy bandwidth use, the network is minimally affected.

In the past, Comcast has used Sandvine software to shape packets and traffic on their network. When it was reported that Comcast was using its product to limit network use, Tom Donnelly, the executive VP of sales and marketing at Sandvine wouldn’t comment.

What he did share in a article was the thought that service providers have policies in place to discriminate against certain types of traffic.

This is exactly what Comcast has been doing…until now.

Just the other day, Comcast did an about-face and owned up to this practice.

According to the Center for Democracy & Technology, in a statement Comcast made jointly with BitTorrent, they have decided to change the way they respond to network congestion.

Well, that statement is a clear admission that they have been packet shaping and throttling down traffic. But why admit that now?

Some analysts feel that this move is being made because the FCC has started to look into the possibility of regulating ISPs’ business practices (though some doubt that’s within their purview), and some people just think it’s a way for Comcast to introduce tiered service levels.

Which means if things go the way Comcast plans, they’re going to soon have users over a barrel like they do with cable television. Use the Internet a lot, pay a lot. Want more speed, pay more.

And I suspect that similar to cellphone use, you won’t know if you’re over your limit until you get dinged with a higher charge.

The real solution here is to have the ISPs give a full accounting of the speeds possible, the number of users they can handle and the costs they incur when providing these services.

That way we’ll all know if we’re being gouged for service that only costs them pennies to provide.

And in that way we’ll be able to respond to the shape of Internet access and things to come.