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FCC Questions Comcast's VoIP Call Handling

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January 19, 2009

FCC Questions Comcast's VoIP Call Handling

By Michael Dinan, TMCnet Editor

The federal agency that oversees communications in the United States is questioning a practice from the nation’s second-largest Internet service provider that apparently subjects competitors’ VoIP calls to quality disruption while preserving its own digital voice service.

In a letter to Comcast Corp., officials at the Federal Communications Commission are critical of a specific offshoot of the company’s plan to de-prioritize a user’s connection if that user is causing congestion. Since the FCC (News - Alert) ruled against Comcast (News - Alert) several months ago for violating U.S. policy when it blocked Internet traffic, the Philadelphia-based company has developed some policies on Web use.
The de-prioritization is one policy. Starting Oct. 1, Comcast also began limiting Internet use among subscribers to 250 gigabytes per month.
But another step the company took – to switch a user from the standard “Priority Best-Effort” traffic to lower quality of service “Best-Effort” traffic for 15 minutes if that user is a major reason that congestion exists – came with some fine print regarding VoIP that the FCC has brought under its magnifying glass.
Apparently, when filing plans with the FCC that would address its policy violations, Comcast failed to detail sufficiently why its new network management technique had an adverse affect on competing carriers’ VoIP offerings. According to the FCC, Comcast says that a consumer trying to place a VoIP call along a congested route may find that his “VoIP call sounds choppy.”
Dana R. Shaffer, chief of the FCC’s wireline competition bureau, told Comcast in a letter that it must provide a detailed justification for its “disparate treatment of its own VoIP service compared to that offered by other VoIP providers on its network.”
“In particular, please explain how Comcast Digital Voice is ‘facilities-based,’ how Comcast Digital Voice uses Comcast’s broadband facilities, and, in particular, whether (and if so, how) Comcast Digital Voice affects network congestion in a different manner than other VoIP services,” Shaffer said.
Comcast officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
To the extent that Comcast says its own VoIP offering is a telephone service that offers transmission facilities for VoIP calls distinct from its broadband service, Shaffer says, it appears that the fee Comcast charges for its Internet telephony service “pays in part for the privileged transmission of information of the customer’s choosing across Comcast’s network.”
“We thus request that Comcast explain any reason the Commission should not treat Comcast’s VoIP offering as a telecommunications service under Title II – a service subject, among other things, to the same intercarrier compensation obligations applicable to other facilities-based telecommunications carriers,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer’s letter, dated yesterday, comes as Kevin Martin, a controversial President Bush appointee as FCC chairman and a man who has needled the cable industry for much of his tenure, steps down.
Industry experts have told TMCnet that VoIP stands to gain a greater appreciation under Barack Obama, who assumes the presidency tomorrow. We will follow this story to see how Obama’s appointee as FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski (News - Alert), handles the Comcast VoIP issue.

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Michael Dinan is a contributing editor for TMCnet, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Michael's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan

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