Comcast, the leading cable network operator in the United States, faces criticism for apparently limiting access to a public hearing on network management practices in front of the Federal Communications Commission. While the cable company now concedes that it limits traffic from peer-to-peer file sharing applications such as BitTorrent, it claims that this is necessary to maintain service to its customers.

The hearing at Harvard Law School was largely filled with Comcast supporters, some of whom had been hired by the company to occupy seats, an irony not lost of many critics left outside as commissioners questioned Comcast about their network management policies.

“While networks may have reasonable practices,” said FCC chairman Kevin Martin, “they obviously cannot operate without taking some reasonable steps, but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block access to certain services.”

“Our job is to figure out where you draw the line between unreasonable discrimination and reasonable network management,” said commissioner Michael Copps.

FCC policy allows internet service providers to use reasonable network management to maintain the flow of data. File sharing services such as BitTorrent and Vuze have formally complained that Comcast discriminates against certain types of traffic.

Comcast argues that it simply manages traffic to avoid service degradation to other customers. Comcast executive David Cohen argued that “independent research has shown that it takes as few as 15 active BitTorrent users uploading content in a particular geographic area to create congestion sufficient to degrade the experience of the hundreds of other users in that area”.

Companies such as Vuze have suggested that it is in the interests of cable operators to limit peer-to-peer traffic and degrade their video distribution as it undermines the video business of the cable company.

The real issue is not one of network neutrality, but one of competition, with consumers having limited choice of broadband service provider, typically the cable or telephone company operating the franchise area.

Some have argued that this requires a structural change in regulation, opening up networks to third parties. The entrenched incumbents argue that this would limit the incentive to invest millions of dollars upgrading existing infrastructure and installing new networks.

Cable companies like Comcast are planning to upgrade their hybrid fibre and co-axial networks to offer higher broadband speeds. Meanwhile, telecommunications company Verizon is rolling out its fibre optic FiOS network that will also offer much faster connections. In both cases, these will be designed to deliver higher speeds both downstream and upstream, enabling faster downloads and uploads.

The critical question for the regulators is how far service providers should be able to take advantage of their infrastructure to differentiate their own services, and how far they should be opened up to enable competition and stimulate the creation of new services running across these networks.