BLOCK AND TACKLE I was on the phone the other day with a very good reporter (yes, there are some…). We had an extended conversation about the entire issue of network management and the current brouhaha over Comcast acknowledging that part of its management is to, when necessary, slow the transmission of some upstream data so all customers can receive service. The reporter kept using the word "block" service. I kept saying that cable companies, or indeed any Internet service provider, is not "blocking" the customer from transmitting his or her data, it is managing the speed at which it is transmitted, but it does not stop the data from getting to its intended recipient. This got us into an important examination of what the word "block" means. The reporter turns out to have been semantically correct. Technically speaking, one can "block" someone or something else without stopping them from ultimately getting where they are trying to go. Think of football. The front offensive line "blocks" the defensive guys, but someone might get through the block and sack the quarterback. So in that context I had to concede that using the term that way an ISP may, indeed, be "blocking" high-data rate, dense uploads from peer-to-peer applications like BitTorrent to allow all customers an equal chance to use the bandwidth, but we never "tackle" the data, thereby not allowing it to get where it is supposed to go. Why am I going through all this? Because I don’t want semantics to get in the way of the ultimate discussion. The folks who want to use the Comcast episode as "proof" there is a need for "net neutrality" rules are clearly using the term "block" to convey the idea that Comcast is somehow preventing or prohibiting the power-users from getting anywhere they want to go on the Web. That smacks of censorship, and that is a convenient, hot-button way to try to win an argument for more regulation. But as the reporter and I worked through the language it became clear that the terminology was getting in the way of a sensible discussion of the issue. So I am going to stop using the word "block" in this context. I will be careful to make it clear that so far as I know the entire cable industry would be supportive of a "net neutrality" rule that says we should not, and indeed may not, prohibit access to any legal site on the Web, and the same is true for any legal application. However, we have every right, indeed a duty to all our subscribers, to assure that they can all receive good service. The 5 percent or so of "power users" who clog a significant majority of bandwidth with peer-to-peer transmissions are the ones who are "blocking" everyone else’s use of the Web. We have an obligation to adopt network management tools to assure that doesn’t happen. I would expect that if any regulations were adopted (like the cable customer service rules) they would in fact require that! There is no such thing as unlimited bandwidth. We have to tell our customers that, and make sure they know they will either be prevented from, or charged for massive data usage that adversely affects the ability of others to also use Internet service. The power users always have the option of buying massive dedicated bandwidth, such as a T3 line, and doing whatever they want. That’s not the service we offer. They know that, and we should say so to protect our customers.

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