The nation’s top media regulator said yesterday that the government is prepared to act on complaints that broadband network providers are unfairly obstructing access to file-sharing applications that they say are hogging bandwidth.
At a public hearing in Boston, the Federal Communications Commission heard perspectives on network management practices from high-speed Internet providers Comcast and Verizon, technology firms, academics and consumer groups. At issue is the concept of so-called “net neutrality” — the question of if and how Internet service providers should be able to prioritize access to certain types of content when managing traffic over their networks.
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin convened the hearing at Harvard Law School in the wake of accusations that Comcast is unreasonably hindering access to file-sharing applications. The company recently admitted to slowing some customers’ access to the peer-to-peer file-sharing program BitTorrent, claiming that such high-bandwidth applications impair other users’ access to the Web. The company said it did not block access to the file-sharing application, however.
“These are very significant issues, and we don’t take these allegations lightly,” Mr. Martin, a Republican, said at the hearing, which was broadcast live over the Internet. Although the commission is still considering the issue, he said, “I think it’s important to understand that the commission is ready, willing and able to step in” if necessary.
The two Democrats on the Republican-led commission, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, said they support a bill from Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, that would require the FCC to investigate network complaints like the one against Comcast.
“I see no reason for us to have to wait for a new law to get this going,” Mr. Copps said. “Network operators are making choices right now that will determine how Americans communicate today and in the future.”
Mr. Adelstein likened the issue to the American Revolution, calling for an “Internet Bill of Rights” that would ensure consumers’ unmitigated access to Web applications of their choice.
The commission in 2005 adopted a policy statement to ensure that networks are “widely deployed, open, affordable and accessible to all consumers.” Mr. Martin has said in the past that he thinks the policy gives the commission the authority to act if there is evidence that a company’s network management practices are unreasonable.
Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, a Republican, said the “new media economy is working through growing pains” but cautioned against government intervention that could reduce incentives for companies to build and operate networks.
“History has taught us time and time again that competitive markets are far better able to service consumer demand than government micromanagement,” he said. “The law of unintended consequences always has the last word.”
Gilles BianRosa, chief executive of Vuze Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif., company that provides high-definition video over the Internet, said his firm has “been forced to engage in a kind of ‘cat-and-mouse’ game with network operators to product our business against undue interference.”
“The absence of any enforceable ground rules threatens the freedom of the Internet,” Mr. BianRosa testified.
Comcast and Verizon said network operators need to organize the traffic along their networks to ensure efficient use of bandwidth.
“For all the talk of the need to regulate in the name of “freedom,” today”s Internet is already truly open and our customers have the freedom to access any Internet content and use any Internet application, service or device they want,” said David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast. “This is a direct result of reasonable and successful network management, including management of network congestion.”
Verizon Executive Vice President Tom Tauke echoed Mr. Cohen, saying network management decisions are fluid, complex and therefore “best made by network engineers and operators — not policy-makers.”
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