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Has the FCC Created a Stone Too Heavy for It to Lift?

Richard Bennett

After five years of bickering, the FCC passed an Open Internet Report & Order on a partisan 3-2 vote this week. The order is meant to guarantee that the Internet of the future will be just as free and open as the Internet of the past. Its success depends on how fast the Commission can transform itself from an old school telecom regulator wired to resist change into an innovation stimulator embracing opportunity. One thing we can be sure about is that the order hasn't tamped down the hyperbole that's fueled the fight to control the Internet's constituent parts for all these years.

Advocates of net neutrality professed deep disappointment that the FCC's rules weren't more proscriptive and severe. Free Press called the order "fake net neutrality," Public Knowledge said it "fell far short," Media Access Project called it "inadequate and riddled with loopholes," and New America Foundation accused the FCC of "caving to telecom lobbyists." These were their official statements to the press; their Tweets were even harsher.

Free marketers were almost as angry: Cato denounced the order as "speech control," Washington Policy Center said it "fundamentally changes many aspects of the infrastructure of the Internet," and the Reason Foundation said it will lead to "quagmire after quagmire of technicalities, which as they add up will have a toll on investment, service and development."

Republican Congressional leaders made no secret of their displeasure with the FCC's disregard for their will: Rep. Fred Upton (R, Michigan,) the incoming Commerce Committee Chairman called it a "hostile action against innovation that can't be allowed to stand," Rep. Greg Walden (R, Oregon,) incoming Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology called it a "power grab," and vowed to hold hearings to overturn it, while Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, Texas,) Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee said the order "threatens the future economic growth of the Internet." Setting Internet policy is indeed a Congressional prerogative rather than an agency matter, so the longer-term solution must come from the Hill, and sooner would be better than later.

Contrary to this criticism and to snarky blogger claims, not everyone was upset with the FCC's action, coming as it did after a year-long proceeding on Internet regulation meant to fulfill an Obama campaign pledge to advance net neutrality. The President himself declared the FCC action an important part of his strategy to "advance American innovation, economic growth, and job creation," and Senator John Kerry (D, Massachusetts) applauded the FCC for reaching consensus.

Technology industry reaction ranged from positive to resigned: Information Technology Industry Council President and CEO Dean Garfield declared the measure "ensures continued innovation and investment in the Internet," TechNet supported it, and National Cable and Telecommunications Association head Kyle McSlarrow said it could have been much worse. At the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, we were pleased by the promises of a relatively humble set of the rules, less so with the final details; we remain encouraged by the robust process the FCC intends to create for judging complaints, one that puts technical people on the front lines. In the end, the order got the support of the only majority that counts, three FCC commissioners.

Most of us who reacted favorably acknowledged the FCC's order wasn't exactly as we would have written it, but accepted it as a pragmatic political compromise that produces more positives than negatives. The hoped-for closing of the raucous debate will have immense benefits on its own, as simply bringing this distracting chapter in the Internet's story to an end will allow more time for sober discussion about the directions we'd like the Internet to take in its future development. There is no shortage of policy issues that have been cramped by the tendency to view net neutrality as the one great magic wand with the power to solve all the Internet's problems: The FCC has work to do on freeing up spectrum for mobile networking, the Universal Service Fund needs to be reformed, and the National Broadband Plan needs to be implemented.

If the FCC's approach proves sound, it might well be exported to other countries, forming the basis of a consistent international approach to the oversight of an international network developed on consistent standards of its own. Such an outcome would have positive consequences for the Internet standards community, which has its own backlog of unfinished business such as scalable routing, congestion management, security, and the domestication of peer-to-peer file sharing and content delivery networks to resolve. This outcome is far from inevitable; last minute rule changes make it less likely than it might have been.

The most important thing the FCC can do in implementing its system of Internet oversight is to elevate process over proscriptive rules. The traditional approach to telecom regulation is to develop a thick sheath of regulations that govern everything from the insignias on the telephone repair person's uniform to the colors of the insulators on RJ11 cables and apply them in top-down, command-and-control fashion. Many of those on the pro-net neutrality side are steeped in telecom tradition, and they expected such an approach from the FCC for the Internet; theirs are the angry reactions.

But the Internet isn't a telecom network, and a foot-high stack of regulations certainly would produce the negative consequences for innovation and progress the FCC's critics have forecast. The appropriate way to address Internet regulation as to follow the model that the Internet has developed for itself, based on a small number of abstract but meaningful principles (each of which is subject to change for good reason) applied by a broad-based community of experts in a collaborative, consultative setting. Internet standards are not devised in an adversarial setting populated by angels and devils locked into mortal combat; they come from a process that values "rough consensus and running code."

The specifics of the FCC's order nevertheless give pause to those well-schooled in networking. A few hours before the Commission's vote, Commissioner Copps persuaded Chairman Genachowski to reverse the Waxman Bill's presumption regarding the premium transport services that enable Internet TV and video conferencing to enjoy the same level of quality as cable TV. Where the early drafts permitted these services as long as they were offered for sale on a non-discriminatory basis, the final rule arbitrarily presumes them harmful.

The order makes hash of the relationship of the content accelerators provided by Akamai and others to the presumptively impermissible communication accelerators that ISPs might provide one day in order to enable HD group video conferencing and similar emerging applications. The Commission majority fears that allowing network operators to offer premium transport to leading edge apps will put the squeeze on generic transport, but fails to consider that such potential downsides of well-accepted technical practices for Quality of Service can be prevented by applying a simple quota limit on the percentage of a pipe that can be sold as "premium." This fact, which is obvious to skilled protocol engineers, goes unmentioned in the order.

The poor reasoning for this rule casts doubt on the FCC's ability to enforce it effectively without outside expertise. By rejecting Internet standards such as RFC 2475 and IEEE standards such as 802.1Q that don't conform to the telecom activists' nostalgic, "all packets are equal" vision of the Internet, the FCC chose to blind itself to one of the central points in Tim Wu's "Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination” paper that started the fight: A neutral Internet favors content applications, as a class, over communication applications and is therefore not truly an open network. The only way to make a network neutral among all applications is to differentiate loss and delay among applications; preferably, this is done by user-controlled means. That's not always possible, so other means are sometimes necessary as well.

All in all, the Commission has built a stone too heavy for it to lift all by itself. The rules have just enough flexibility that the outside technical advisory groups that will examine complaints may be able to correct the order's errors, but to be effective, the advisors need much deeper technical knowledge than the FCC staffers who wrote the order can provide.

It's difficult to ask the FCC — an institution with its own 75 year tradition in which it has served as the battleground for bitter disputes between monopolists and public interest warriors — to turn on a dime and embrace a new spirit of collaboration, but without such a far-reaching institutional transformation its Internet regulation project will not be successful. Those of us who work with the FCC are required to take a leap of faith to the effect that the Commission is committed to transforming itself from a hidebound analog regulator into a digital age shepherd of innovation. Now that the Open Internet Report & Order has passed, we have no choice but to put our shoulders to the rock to help push it along. There's no turning back now.

(This article was originally published on Innovation Policy Blog)

By Richard Bennett, Senior Research Fellow. More blog posts from Richard Bennett can also be read here.

Related topics: Broadband, Internet Governance, Law, Mobile, Net Neutrality, Policy & Regulation, Telecom, VoIP, Wireless

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Comments

RFC 2475 is still informational. Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Dec 27, 2010 5:19 AM PDT

Bennett is of course a K-street lobbyist rather than a scholar. And a very good rule of thumb is that when such people attack the credentials or expertise of others, their statements are to be considered with skepticism. Bennett can't argue with the FCC advisors position so he denigrates their expertise, a very convenient tactic.

Of course the debate is not 'closed' as AT&T;and the other funders of this lobbying shop would like us to think. And the debate will never be closed until the fundamental market failure in US communications policy is addressed: the lack of competition in broadband provision.

As a consumer I have a choice of exactly one broadband provider: Comcast. Verizon might eventually lay Fios in my neighborhood, but they have been promising that 'imminently' for two years now. And two providers is only slightly better than one. You can't have a free market without competition.

If we are going to have this debate it would be much better for all concerned if Comcast, AT&T;and the rest would debate it openly and in person rather than pay lobbyists to attack the expertise of others while hiding behind the self-awarded title of 'scholar'.

All architecture RFCs are informational Richard Bennett  –  Dec 27, 2010 6:59 AM PDT

I wouldn't worry too much about the status of RFC 2475. All architecture RFCs are classified as informational in the RFC Editor's quirky system since they haven't got around to creating a special classification that reflects their actual significance. So that's like saying RFC's are "Requests for Comments" because that's the literal meaning of the acronym.

The "lobbyist" slur draws a canned response.

The interesting thing about paragraph 76 of the FCC's Report & Order is that it had to be re-written to accommodate the Copps Compromise. The original form of the R&O;would have argued just the opposite, that QoS-based interconnection agreements are fine as long as the terms are standardized; that's what the Waxman Bill did. So the hasty justification may not be indicative of the expertise of the FCC staff as much as a testament to the fact that they're bound by politics to produce the right answer.

The arguments they make don't strike as persuasive in any case; arguing that technical practices must follow "well established conventions" is obviously a recipe for technical stagnation, and claiming that the FCC record has no evidence that CDNs affect other users is disingenuous; the R&O;cites contrary evidence in footnote 235.

I think this is all a smokescreen Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Dec 27, 2010 10:29 AM PDT

I think this is all a smokescreen to cover up the justification for the real concern which is that a monopoly broadband provider might use their position anti-competitively.

For example, I have Vonage telephone service and I have Comcast telephone service. In the past both worked perfectly. Now the Vonage service has been degraded to the point where it is unusable but the Comcast service is fine.

As a consumer I have no way to know if this is a result of insufficient infrastructure investment on the part of Vonage or due to Comcast sabotaging connections to Vonage despite the fact that I have paid Comcast for service and they should be required by force of law to provide me with the amount of service that I have paid for. It is certainly in the interests of Comcast to encourage subscribers to purchase their overpriced telephone service rather than use Vonage or a competitor. It is also very clearly an anti-competitive practice for them to do so.

If Comcast is in a monopoly or duopoly provider position then regulation is going to be required to ensure that they do not attempt to use that position anti-competitively.

You got what you asked for Richard Bennett  –  Dec 27, 2010 2:45 PM PDT

Now that 20% of Comcast's network is servicing Netflix users, might it be that the remaining capacity isn't enough to provide low latency transport to Vonage? I say this because the reason that Comcast throttled P2P in 2008 was that Vonage customers were complaining about poor call quality.

The system that Comcast adopted to satisfy the FCC's sanctions is "application-agnostic," which isn't good for VoIP.

Hard to believe Dan Campbell  –  Dec 27, 2010 5:48 PM PDT

I have a hard time believing that your Vonage service is degrading to the point of being unusable.  I too have Vonage and have been running two Vonage lines over Comcast for over three years now.  It works fine, and we frequently make and recieve overseas calls.  Rarely is there an issue at all much less one that occurs with such consistency that you could chalk it up to congestion or, worse yet, the deliberate anti-competitive sabatage that you suggest.  In fact, I also have a Comcast phone line as part of their triple play, but I end up using it only as a fax line in favor of Vonage service.

Throughout this whole Net Neutrality debate, what is most common is that those for Net Neutrality make accusations that are somewhere between exaggerations to out and out lies, all driven by an underlying hatred of big telco carriers and cable companies (however justified that may be for other reasons).  The hatred particularly of cable companies is typically rooted in issues that probably started long before they began offering broadband service.  The whole argument becomes slanted because of that.

Now, if service in your neighborhood is so much different than mine that your Vonage is unusable, perhaps it is the result of abuse of the broadband service by your neighbors, perhaps P2P?  But as we've seen, when Comcast attempted to use off the shelf technology to create a more fair environment that ensured decent access for everyone and that services like VoIP (even from competitors) could work better, they were hung for it, and we were left with (as Richard says) the application-agnostic approach.  If your service is bad, you can look there for the blame.  The NN movement made matters worse.

I have a hard time believing that Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Dec 28, 2010 2:47 AM PDT

I have a hard time believing that you would accuse me of being a liar like that.

Comcast would have to be particularly stupid to play such games in the DC metro area where they would affect policy makers. So your observation would not necessarily be representative.

My vonage service is almost unusable due to sound quality. The three possible explanations are poor service by vonage, sabotage by Comcast and the cisco adapter failing. And as a customer I have no ready means to determine which one is the case.

As for where I should look for the problem. It is the job of regulators to make sure that markets are honest and transparent. If comcast is unable or unwilling to prove that they are delivering the service that I paid for honestly and there is no competitive market, it is the job of government regulators to protect me.

If comcast have a problem with that they need to look at ways to demonstrate that they are in fact delivering service honestly.

Fill out form 2000B Richard Bennett  –  Dec 28, 2010 3:15 AM PDT

You're in luck, Mr. Hallam-Baker. No longer do you need to scratch your head over the mysteries of network engineering, you can now turn to the FCC to resolve your Vonage problem.

Simply fill out Form 2000B, available on the FCC web site, file it with the FCC, and your prayers for a more neutral, er, Open, er cheap, er, whatever Internet will be answered.

The FCC has volunteered to do customer service for one and all. I'm not kidding, the form is for real.

Have you ever tried treating your opponents Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Dec 28, 2010 3:39 AM PDT

Have you ever tried treating your opponents with respect?

I only started calling you a corporate shill after you launched into a very personal attack on the integrity of the IETF chair and continued to do without admitting a very clear conflict of interest.

It is not the mysteries of network engineering that are at issue here. It is the question of quite why Comcast should be so reluctant to assure customers that it does not plan to cheat them by failing to deliver the service that they paid for.

Here you are again with the tired claim that the only reason someone could possibly disagree with you is that they are stupid or ignorant. That is not a reasoned argument, its just an attempt to bully opponents into silence. Its the same trick that the con-men play in the Emperor's new clothes.

Looking at the credentials of the new FCC CTO, I don't think you can fairly claim to outrank him in expertise or experience.

Last time we had this discussion you ended up attempting to ridicule me by claiming that I must think that the Watergate burglary was planned on K-street. Which is rather interesting assertion since the Watergate building is practically on K-street and the burglary was actually planned only two blocks south. It is a distinction without a difference which is pretty much what your arguments turn out to be.

Odd comment coming from you Richard Bennett  –  Dec 28, 2010 5:22 AM PDT

That seems like you're trying to mount some sort of obscure personal attack, and a very tedious one at that. I don't play that game, sorry.

Incidentally Richard Bennett  –  Dec 28, 2010 6:59 AM PDT

Your first sentence in your first comment was: "Bennett is of course a K-street lobbyist rather than a scholar."

After making a libelous slur like that, you forfeit any presumption of a respectful response; respect is a two-way street.

That is far from the first time Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Dec 28, 2010 7:15 AM PDT

That is far from the first time we have crossed.

My problem is not with the fact that you are a lobbyist, it is the fact that you pose as a disinterested party when you are in fact your employer is in the business of paid partisan advocacy.

And how was your relationship with your mom? Richard Bennett  –  Dec 28, 2010 1:01 PM PDT

Your fantasies are of no interest to CircleID, so if you can't stay on-topic and factual, I suggest you not comment at all. ITIF is non-profit think tank, not a lobbying shop.

Disingenuous as ever The Famous Brett Watson  –  Dec 28, 2010 5:43 PM PDT

Richard, ITIF's very own "about us" page says their mission is "to formulate and promote public policies", a task better known as "lobbying". I have no doubt that the policies so formulated and promoted are harmonious with the aims and goals of the organisations funders, and it's clear to me that you faithfully act in accordance with those interests. That, in itself, is not a problem. However, I share Phillip's annoyance over the fact that you feign disinterest, and take a shrill tone (to say the least) with anyone who dares question that neutrality. You've taken this farcical charade to new heights with the claim that ITIF is not a lobbying shop when its own website flatly contradicts that.

Could you please just drop the act? Arguments don't gain or lose any validity based on who pays for them.

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Stop Lying Richard Bennett  –  Dec 28, 2010 6:05 PM PDT

ITIF is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3), not-for-profit, public policy think tank, not a lobbying shop. Anyone who knows the first thing about the American political process understands the difference between advocating policies that are beneficial to the nation and lobbying for narrow commercial interests. 501(c)(3)'s are forbidden by law from spending more than 10% of their time on specific bills, and lobbyists spend all of their time on that sort of thing. Here's the law:

To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.

This is public policy 101. I am not a lobbyist, and ITIF is not a lobbying company. These are plain facts.

I find that various angry people like to throw the word "lobbyist" around to condemn any ideas or analyses they don't like. This is nothing more than trolling. If you think the validity of arguments can't be judged ad hominem, why even go there?

Hallam-Baker is a foreigner who doesn't understand the American political system, so he can't be blamed too much for misusing the English language; Americans don't have that excuse.

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Just be frank.... The Famous Brett Watson  –  Dec 28, 2010 8:08 PM PDT

ITIF is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3), not-for-profit, public policy think tank, not a lobbying shop.

Okay, fair enough.

Anyone who knows the first thing about the American political process understands the difference between advocating policies that are beneficial to the nation and lobbying for narrow commercial interests.

And anyone who wasn't born yesterday knows that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Let's call it "advocacy" instead of "lobbying", since you take such exception to the latter label, but quit trying to kid us that your advocacy is neutral and disinterested.

I find that various angry people like to throw the word "lobbyist" around to condemn any ideas or analyses they don't like. This is nothing more than trolling. If you think the validity of arguments can't be judged ad hominem, why even go there?

I'm not judging your argument. I haven't even bothered analysing your argument in this particular case, if the truth be known. What I'm taking exception to is your persistent lack of candour with regards to your interests. As Phillip said, the problem is "the fact that you pose as a disinterested party when ... your employer is in the business of paid partisan advocacy." Any time someone points out this incongruity, you retaliate with personal attacks and/or weasel words. "I am not a lobbyist" may be technically true, and it sounds like a denial that you are a professional advocate without actually constituting one.

You are a senior research fellow for a think tank, and the views you express here are presumably representative of that organisation (or else you should start adding a disclaimer). We outsiders reasonably assume that the organisation holds views which are substantially compatible with the interests of those who fund it. This is nothing controversial — it's the way the world works — so be candid about it. Don't present your views as "beneficial to the nation", pure as the driven snow, without disclosing corporate backing: that's the symmetrically opposite sin to ad hominem use of the word "lobbyist".

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Jesus H. Christ Richard Bennett  –  Dec 28, 2010 8:12 PM PDT

Follow this link, read the material, and drop this nonsensical line of personal attack.

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You're right -- who cares? The Famous Brett Watson  –  Dec 28, 2010 10:43 PM PDT

I've read your link. It contains some good advice, like…

Don't call the other guy a liar, even if you think he or she is one.

Perhaps you would care to retract some earlier statements (or comment titles, at least) based on this — unless you consider the phrase "stop lying" to be distinct from calling the other guy a liar (a distinction without a difference, as Phillip might say).

But I guess you're right about the irrelevance of this discussion in the long run. Although I'm curious to know the truth, it ultimately makes no difference whether you express views because you are paid to do so, or whether you are paid because you express those views. There's probably some kind of causal relationship there, but it's immaterial.

In return for dropping the issue, please do me the favour of excusing those of us who, from time to time, assume that you are speaking on behalf of Comcast or some other similar corporate entity. Regardless of any separation between your "think tank" employer and these corporations, you often take exactly the line that we would expect a paid corporate shill to take. It's only natural to think "follow the money" under such circumstances, and your dogged insistence on the independence of the think tank draws attention to the issue and makes the coincidence more suspicious than it already is. You may want to re-think your strategy in dealing with this issue: I believe that your present canned response actually aggravates the problem.

By the way, here's a suggestion for another online behaviour tip…

Maintain a respectful tone in your discourse, even when your opponent doesn't. Don't demand that respect be a two-way street, or the first perceived slight will reduce the conversation to a slanging match.

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Again we see the same old tactics:* Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Dec 29, 2010 3:15 AM PDT

Again we see the same old tactics:

* Everyone who disagrees with Bennett must do so from ignorance or stupidity.

* Everyone who disagrees with Bennett should shut up and stop arguing.

It is precisely these tactics that I despise in the pseudo-academic institutions that have sprung up in recent years. They do not exist as they claim to further discussion of public policy, they exist to advance the views of those that pay them and suppress contrary views.

I don't think many people would try to claim with a straight face that AEI, Heritage and the like are non-partisan institutions committed to neutral public policy research. As David Frum found out, the AEI cannot even tolerate an honest post-mortem. ITIF sits far lower down on the thunk tank food chain.

And we are all expected to sit politely and not challenge these assertions.

Nope, not happening.

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This is what we call performance art Richard Bennett  –  Dec 29, 2010 5:15 AM PDT

Boring.

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Idea for a new study Richard Bennett  –  Dec 29, 2010 5:37 AM PDT

Reading this comments thread has inspired me to look at the correlation between the rise of America's therapy culture with the decline in American technological competitiveness. I'm sure there's a time lag, but the acceptance of narcissistic styles of thought has to work against the values that lead to innovation.

What passes for an argument here becomes Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Dec 29, 2010 6:10 AM PDT

What passes for an argument here becomes stranger and stranger.

I am not sure what the connection to American therapy culture would be here. I am not an American, nor have I ever done therapy.

When I was younger I had the privilege of knowing some of the people who led the protests that ultimately brought down communism and the Soviet system in Eastern Europe and the USSR. The Soviet system was also fond of labeling its opponents as 'insane'. The apologists for the Soviet system were also enamored of the belief that they were the proud possessors of an absolute, unassailable truth.

As for the US being in a decline with respect to technological competitiveness, I find that rather hard to believe and even if it were true, it is probably irrelevant. Less than a decade ago, the US formed the vanguard of the Internet revolution. Regardless of the quantity and quality of home grown talent, the US is able to draw in a critical mass of top talent in any field. As the old saying goes, the Apolo program was the result of German rockets, British brains and American money.

My point all along is that broadband provision is not a competitive market. Unlike here in the UK, provision in most parts of the US are a monopoly or duopoly.

If Comcast wants to avoid government regulation they are going to have to develop a technical infrastructure that allows them to demonstrate that they are not abusing their position. Hiring people like Mr Bennett to call people idiots and try to bully them out of the conversation only encourages the notion that they must be up to no good. Why fund such bullies unless you really did intend abuse?

The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius Richard Bennett  –  Dec 29, 2010 2:16 PM PDT

[I don't work for Comcast, never have. I pay Comcast for Internet service, which work fine for me.]

For those who may not have noticed, we have a net neutrality law in the United States now that prohibits most forms of application-oriented Internet traffic shaping, both for good and for ill. This law is much more prescriptive than European Internet regulations, and would not allow most UK ISPs to shape traffic the way they do.

According to net neutrality advocates, this new American regulatory system will usher in the Age of Aquarius ("harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions..." - "Hair") and increased innovation. Yet many in the neutralist camp are already backing away or hedging their bets.

Now that the FCC has passed their regulations, we're in a position to test the claims that have been made for net neut since the turn of the century. Some cynical advocates, apparently realizing that net neut is not all that, are denouncing the FCC action as "fake net neutrality" or worse, in advance of any real data. Does this mean that the theory of the Internet that net neut reflects is naive or wrong? Could be, I suppose we'll have to check back in six months from now and take stock.

Without further comment on other points made by Richard Bennet Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Dec 31, 2010 8:07 AM PDT

I'll agree 100% about the stuff aimed at some of the louder and naiver voices in the net neutrality brigade.

Happy New Year Dan Campbell  –  Jan 01, 2011 1:01 PM PDT

I was too busy to respond last week but have been keeping up with the banter.  Now that we're past the holidays (almost) let me catch up a bit.

To Phillip, regarding:

"My vonage service is almost unusable due to sound quality. The three possible explanations are poor service by vonage, sabotage by Comcast and the cisco adapter failing. And as a customer I have no ready means to determine which one is the case."

I highly doubt it’s poor service by Vonage.  They have many satisfied customers, including myself.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how good the service is, especially since I was skeptical at first.  I thought I’d end up being disappointed and switching back to traditional land lines. I quickly found their service to be about 99% as good as traditional POTS lines and better than mobile phones.  And I ran it over Verizon DSL for about a year before I moved and switched to Comcast.  It worked fine on Verizon as well.

If their service was uniformly that bad, they’d have no business.

If you think it’s your router/VoIP adapter, have Vonage ship you a new one.  They will gladly do so. I had one replaced once easily.

There are more possibilities than those three you list, the simplest being that you experience occasional congestion that affects sound quality.  Comcast is no longer are able to shape traffic to thwart abuse and make sure all users have a fair shot at the shared service, so perhaps that is your issue.  Perhaps your neighbors are aggressive users of the service.  If you want to blame capacity issues on your broadband provider, fair enough.  Just keep in mind that there are always technical limits, so complaints have be reasonable and tempered by what the implications may be.

There are plenty of free tools out there to test broadband upload/download speed and even tools to test jitter that will give you a reasonable prediction, at least during the time of the test, as to if your connection supports VoIP and what the expected sound quality would be.  I’m sure you’ll find that your service supports VoIP.

Regarding:

"Comcast would have to be particularly stupid to play such games in the DC metro area where they would affect policy makers.  So your observation would not necessarily be representative."

Thank you for making my previous point about unsubstantiated allegations with no facts to back them up, which blows the credibility of your statements out of the water.  Now you are suggesting that not only is Comcast involved in direct anti-competitive sabotage against another service provider, that they are doing it selectively by geographic location and deliberately avoiding a place like Washington DC because, maybe, someone who influences policy might actually be a “victim” of such a tactic?  Please.  That would really be an interesting service to construct and operate.  Explain that one to your NOC and Help Desk.  Or don’t.  The most junior level Help Desk analyst or NOC technician will quickly spot that pattern in trouble ticket calls in a hurry.  And if you are suggesting that they or even backbone engineers are in on the whole caper, well, that would leak in about 5 minutes.

So maybe “liar” is a strong word.  But gross distortions and exaggerations without facts to back them up are tantamount to lies.  What’s the difference really?  In some contexts such things are called libel, slander or defamation.  Or lies.

Either way, it is not a strong argument.

Since you challenged me on a factual Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Jan 01, 2011 1:22 PM PDT

Since you challenged me on a factual issue that I can verify and you can not, I don't think you have standing to comment on whose argument is strong or not.

My point regarding service is that Comcast is guilty until proven innocent as far as customers are concerned. If it was possible for me to switch (and the switching costs were not high) I would.

If you want to stay in business you have to constantly sell your product to your customers and work to convince them that it is good. Anyone who thinks they should get the benefit of the doubt has the wrong idea.

If Comcast want the broadband monopoly question to go away they have to work to prove that they have no intention of abuse and can prove that they are not abusing. Paying people to peddle nonsense from K-street PR agencies pretending to be impartial research institutes is counter-productive in my view.

I don't challenge your statement that your Dan Campbell  –  Jan 01, 2011 1:51 PM PDT

I don't challenge your statement that your service quality has issues but rather your deduction that Comacast must be sabotaging Vonage and your subsequent statement tha they are doing it selectively by city, avoiding ones like DC because of potential policy makers being on the receiving end of such a tactic.  If you have proof, expose it.  If you don't, such statements are dangerous and unfair at best.

You accusing me of lying and then Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Jan 01, 2011 4:13 PM PDT

You accusing me of lying and then make a statement which is contradicted by the posts here. What I said was:

"As a consumer I have no way to know if this is a result of insufficient infrastructure investment on the part of Vonage or due to Comcast sabotaging connections to Vonage"

I gave three possible reasons for the poor service. I don't find the peer-peer explanation convincing, I have no problem whatsoever with netflix streaming video with vastly higher demands.

You started by accusing me of lying and now you are misrepresenting what I said. I don't think there is any purpose in replying to you further.

Vonage is not Netflix Richard Bennett  –  Jan 01, 2011 4:42 PM PDT

Netflix is a highly asymmetrical application that sends much more data downstream than upstream. Vonage is a highly symmetrical application, but its upstream volume isn't that high because it's a narrowband app. A competent network engineer can isolate differential congestion effects between upstream and downstream.

There's another big difference between these two apps with respect to backbone dependency: Vonage is highly dependent on the backbone, and Netflix is highly independent of it. Isolating congestion effects between the DOCSIS portion of Comcast and the RAN/Transit/Peering portion is harder.

People are always going to have problems running various apps on a network system that can only be tuned to provide optimal support to a single application. As long as the Internet is a "best efforts only" system, it will effectively be tuned to support the single dominant application paradigm; that used to be the Web, but is now video streaming. This is pretty bad for non-dominant apps like Vonage and Skype.

Most people who have problems with paid services take their complaints to the service provider, not to the blogs or the FCC. I have a problem with Netflix on my Samsung BD-P2500 player, where every time I try to use Netflix, I have to re-authorize it. This is annoying, so I called Netflix and they pointed the finger at a recent firmware update by Samsung. Seems like a plausible explanation, but there's no fix for it yet.

I use Comcast, so if I were naive about networking and took the "Comcast is guilty until proven innocent" angle on this problem, I'd be pointing the finger in the wrong place, and that would be counter-productive.

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