Broadband providers slow traffic and track subscribers, groups complain

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission needs to take steps to keep the Internet free of interference from broadband providers, such as the slowing of peer-to-peer traffic and the tracking of subscribers’ Web habits, several witnesses told the FCC at a hearing Monday.

The FCC should take fast action against broadband providers that block access to legal online applications, especially those who don’t notify their subscribers, said Marge Krueger, administrator of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) for the district covering Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Krueger didn’t name providers that have slowed access to applications, but Comcast has been in the news in recent months for slowing access to the BitTorrent peer-to-peer application. A Comcast representative didn’t testify at Monday’s hearing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but the company has repeatedly said it slows BitTorrent traffic at limited times of peak traffic.

Another witness complained that some broadband providers are using deep-packet inspection techniques to track subscribers’ Internet use, in an effort to deliver targeted advertising. NebuAd, a California company, has worked with several broadband providers to provide this targeted ad service, but several privacy groups and U.S. lawmakers have objected to the tracking.

Deep-packet inspection can be a useful tool for network management, said David Farber, a computer science and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon. “What’s almost obscene is the fact that people are using it to gather information about what I’m sending on the network and selling that information to other people,” Farber said. “That is completely obscene and should be stopped.”

Several members of the public also called on the FCC to enforce so-called network neutrality rules that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing Web content from competitors. Small video producers and other online businesses will not be able to compete without net neutrality rules, said one Carnegie Mellon student.

But Robert Quinn, senior vice president for federal regulatory policy at AT&T, asked the FCC to look carefully before regulating how broadband providers can mange their networks. While the FCC has the power to enforce net neutrality rules, broadband providers need to be able to manage their networks as more and more subscribers begin to use high-bandwidth applications such as video, he said.

AT&T spent about US $17.5 billion in 2007 on expanding networks and other capital improvements, Quinn said. The broadband provider expects bandwidth demand to increase by more than 400 percent in the next three years, he said.

“With the kind of growth we are seeing in bandwidth demand today, we cannot simply stay ahead of the bandwidth curve by building bigger and better pipes,” Quinn added. “The money to build them just doesn’t exist. Network operators must be able to manage those networks to squeeze out every last ounce of efficiency that we can, in order to keep the cost to the end-user customer as affordable as we can possibly make it.”

The CWA’s Krueger and several other witnesses called on the U.S. to create a comprehensive broadband policy that would help providers roll out broadband to rural areas and increase speeds. Average U.S. broadband speeds are slower than in several other industrialized nations, putting U.S. consumers and businesses at a disadvantage, she said.

But Scott Wallsten, vice president for research at the conservative Technology Policy Institute, suggested that many reports showing the U.S. falling behind other nations in broadband are misleading, particularly studies by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showing the U.S. 15th in the world in per capita broadband adoption. The U.S. has a larger household size than many other OECD members, and households typically get one broadband connection to share, he said.

The OECD also undercounts business broadband connections, he said.

While better information about broadband availability is needed, the U.S. is not facing a broadband crisis that cries for major new policies, Wallsten said.

FCC member Michael Copps said he found it hard to believe that people were still arguing against a comprehensive broadband policy. All major infrastructure built in the U.S., from the railroads to the telephone network to the interstate highway system, required major investments by the federal government, he said.

“I am unaware of any infrastructure built in the history of this country that has not been accomplished through a public sector/private sector partnership,” Copps said. “We’re sitting here saying, ‘Should there be a [national] strategy?’ We’ve never done that before.”

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