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The Dark Lord of Broadband Tries to Fix Comcast's Image

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Old 01-26-2009
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The Dark Lord of Broadband Tries to Fix Comcast's Image
The Ames courtroom at Harvard Law School is typically reserved for mock trials. Its 290 seats face a massive desk on a raised dais, where real Supreme Court justices occasionally sit to determine the fate of fake cases. The FCC decided to hold its hearing on Comcast's actions against file-sharing in Cambridge, and on this February day in 2008, the five commissioners took their seats in the courtroom. At a long witness table, one place was set for Comcast, the rest for its critics.
Earlier in the day, students, professors, activists, and customers gathered on the front steps of Austin Hall. Some carried signs blasting the cable giant—"No One Owns the Internet," read one—other protestors made impromptu speeches about neutrality. Before the hearing even started, campus cops had to turn people away. An overflow crowd gathered in the basement, where a computer showed a webcast of the proceedings upstairs. "It felt like the days before the Vietnam War," says David Clark, an MIT scientist who is considered one of the fathers of the Internet.
Roberts didn't come. Instead, he sent his consiglieri, executive vice president David Cohen. A longtime Pennsylvania political operative, Cohen is stocky and pugnacious, the complete opposite of his boss. Cohen gave an impassioned and unequivocal defense of the ISP's actions. "I'm going to say, on the record, in front of this commission: Comcast does not block any Web site, application, or Web protocol, including peer-to-peer services. Period. Doesn't happen," he said. "What we are doing is a limited form of network management," he added, "during limited periods of network congestion."
The response was just as unyielding. One by one, assorted Internet guardians and programmers leaned into their microphones and pointed out the inconsistencies in Cohen's statements. They noted the harm that Comcast was doing, calling it discriminatory and dangerous to capitalism, to America, to the Internet. "If Comcast gains the FCC's permission to block BitTorrent, you can bet that BitTorrent will be the tip of the iceberg," said Timothy Wu, a Columbia Law School professor. Nevertheless, Cohen seemed to really thrill the audience. He wasn't the most exciting speaker, but several times he was greeted with surprisingly enthusiastic applause.
Later, it came out that Comcast had hired shills: seat-fillers, who the company claimed were there to save places for Comcast employees. But for some reason those employees never showed up.
Comcast needed some other way to defuse the situation, so it put together a partnership with BitTorrent—"in the spirit of openness and fostering innovative solutions," as BitTorrent's president at the time put it—to find ways for the technology to travel in peace with the other packets on Comcast's network. It sounded like reconciliation, but it was only PR. While BitTorrent the company was cofounded by the same programmer who created BitTorrent the technology, it had no actual control over the standard or its users. BitTorrent fans dismissed Comcast's move as just another cynical attempt to fool the government.
At the urging of Comcast's foes, the FCC called a second public hearing, this one at Stanford University, where the man who started it all, Robb Topolski, presented his side of the story. Nobody clapped for Comcast this time, because no one from the company came.
The public beatings were beginning to hurt. In early fall, the company decided to measure just how bad the damage was by holding a series of subscriber focus groups. Most of the people, it turned out, had never even heard of P2P. In one session, a young man mentioned that he was using BitTorrent to assemble a library of every anime movie ever created. The rest of the group quickly turned on him, accusing him of stealing their broadband. "They didn't bash us; they didn't talk about poor customer service. It was actually pretty uplifting," says one employee who attended. "If you read the blogs on the P2P stuff, you'd think we were Satan."
It drove Roberts crazy to see Comcast getting trashed, to have his family's business maligned. Roberts had told the crowd at CES that he wanted to lead the technology industry, to be a senior statesperson. Now self-proclaimed defenders of the Internet were casting him as a heel. "Comcast leadership has an attitude of 'Damn the torpedoes, we're not doing anything wrong,'" Public Knowledge's Sohn says. "Well, the apple rots from the top, from Brian Roberts."
In August, the FCC issued a 67-page report that read as if Comcast was the worst company the FCC had ever regulated. Comcast lied about its actions, schemed to prevent oversight, confused customers, and put the future of Net-based innovation at risk. The commissioners doubted Comcast's contention that blocking BitTorrent helped its network. If that were the case, the report asked, why was the company doing it during times of light traffic and in areas where there were few bandwidth-sucking households? Wasn't it possible that Comcast was trying to stop a technology that was a threat to its own video-on-demand cable services? The final verdict was devastating: "In laymen's terms, Comcast opens its customers' mail because it wants to deliver mail not based on the address or type of stamp on the envelope but on the type of letter contained therein," the FCC wrote. "This practice is not 'minimally intrusive' but invasive and outright discriminatory."
The FCC didn't levy a fine. In fact, it's still not even clear whether the commission has the regulatory right to punish such behavior. But Comcast couldn't ignore the public spanking (though it's currently appealing the decision). It submitted a report to the FCC detailing exactly how its network operated, from how many homes share an upstream connection (about 100) to the equipment it used to fight P2P traffic (the Sandvine PTS 8210). Comcast swore off discrimination based on any particular technology. And it disclosed a policy that had secretly been on the books for a while but which it now intended to enforce: It would cap subscriber bandwidth at 250 GB per month, enough for a user to download 125 movies in standard definition or to watch 1,750 hours of YouTube.
"Was it handled perfectly? You know, it's like anything. I wish we could've done some things differently," Roberts says. "We hit a very raw nerve."
In the end, the geeks won. But they may have unwittingly hurt their own cause. Roberts' "concession"—putting uniform, nondiscriminatory caps on usage—will likely mark the demise of the all-you-can-eat Internet buffet. ISPs like Time Warner Cable and AT&T have begun running limited tests of capped service, penalizing consumers for going over arbitrary limits (ranging from 5 to 150 GB). Countries where low caps are already common have found themselves trailing the world in how they use broadband; in Australia, where the average cap is 15 GB, 70 percent of Internet users say they never download or watch video online.
When broadband is turned into a scarce commodity, surfing suddenly becomes a domestic negotiation: Is it worth it to watch one more Family Guy episode on Hulu, to run BitTorrent, or to download a movie from Netflix? A recent IDC study found that the vast majority of Internet users have no idea how much data they consume or even how to measure it. It's possible that Comcast's FCC-approved cure, if adopted by all ISPs, will strangle online video and drive consumers back to channel-surfing on cable TV, which would suit Comcast just fine.
To be fair, Comcast's 250-GB cap is far above current global standards, and Roberts still may turn out to be an ideal steward of Internet access, but not everyone is willing to wait around to see if he remains so generous. In November, President-elect Barack Obama picked Susan Crawford as an adviser on recasting the FCC. As a Comcast-blasting law professor, Crawford had equated Comcast's actions against peer-to-peer file-sharing with those carried out by the Net censors in China. She called the company's moves "obviously deceitful" and argued for the Feds to break it up. If Roberts thought 2008 was bad, 2009 may be shaping up to be truly horrible.
Brian Roberts is learning. And part of his education has come from an employee nicknamed Famous Frank. Last spring, a middle management customer-support executive named Frank Eliason, 36, started Twittering in his free time. Eliason is relentlessly upbeat and hated searching for "Comcast" on Twitter and seeing only slams. He asked for permission not just to defend the company but to actually try to fix the problems. If someone on Twitter complained about, say, an Internet outage, he'd start troubleshooting for them.
Eliason—who goes by the online handle comcastcares—had already been gaining attention, and accolades, when one of Comcast's senior executives realized that maybe Roberts should be clued in. She left Roberts a voicemail—voicemail, not email, is the preferred form of communication among Comcast executives. "You're doing what?" he responded in his own voice message. "We're just letting him go at it?" Nevertheless, he did nothing to stop it.
Eliason was actively trying to prevent customer complaints from spiraling into angry vendettas. These weren't just regular users, either, but Twitter users, many of whom were likely the same early adopters who love BitTorrent, who complain to the FCC, who might even enjoy building an anti-Comcast blog. Roberts began following the Twitter feed, and he realized that this was ... good. He OK'd adding people to Eliason's special forces team, overruling Eliason's direct boss.
Soon, Eliason became a minor Internet celebrity, hence his new nickname inside the company. He was asked to speak at conferences as well as to other companies struggling with similar problems.
Thanks to Famous Frank, Comcast began thinking about going even further. The weekend that the company published its response to the FCC—outlining how it managed its network and how it planned to change—one of Roberts' lieutenants suggested something even more radical: having ordinary company engineers go on message boards to answer questions. It was the kind of proposal that violated every tenet of the old cable code of business, and the matter could be settled only at an executive board meeting on the 52nd floor.
Roberts, sitting with his back to the window, listened to both sides. Then he declared it was time to be a bit more transparent. He finally got it. He was turning a page. "I think we should do this, but we all have to have thick skins," he said. "People are going to vent. But that's all right."
Senior writer Daniel Roth ( profiled renegade Wall Street analyst Henry Blodget in issue 16.12.

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