Why Comcast is right to jam BitTorrent

The outrage continues over Comcast’s jamming of BitTorrent and other traffic on its cable network in the U.S. The company has tried to clarify its position by saying that it doesn’t block BitTorrent traffic, it merely “delays” it (and apparently some other traffic as well). As James Robertson and Cynthia Brumfield have pointed out, part of the problem is that Comcast isn’t being very forthcoming about what it is doing at all — in part because the company says it is afraid that providing too much detail will allow BitTorrent users to find a way around the network “shaping.”

I know that the popular position is to slam Comcast for telling users what to do with their network bandwidth, and I know my instinct is the same whenever my ISP talks about BitTorrent or bandwidth caps. But like most ISPs — and cellular carriers — Comcast has a “terms of service” agreement that allows it to restrict what users do with their accounts, so that whatever they’re doing doesn’t impact on others using the network. That’s a fact of life.

The big issue for ISPs is that p2p apps like Skype, Joost and BitTorrent can consume a huge amount of bandwidth. According to some estimates, 10 BitTorrent users on a network node can double the delays that other users experience — and as much as 60 per cent of the traffic on some networks is BitTorrent-related. That may not be a problem for BitTorrent users, but it could severely impact those using other applications on the same network.

Obviously it would be better if ISPs like Comcast or Rogers built out their networks to provide more bandwidth, and it would also be better if there were more competition in the Internet access business. But it’s hard to blame Comcast or anyone else for trying to make sure all of their customers get the service they deserve. Now if only the company would come out and say so.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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