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Net Neutrality Redux: No Legislation Needed

The concept of network neutrality -- making sure that the Internet we've come to know and love doesn't break down in a balkanized mess of restricted access policies -- generates strong feelings on both sides of the debate. You may already have noticed my bias in favor of the status quo, for example.

That's why it's such a shock to see two traditional enemies in this debate take a break from lobbying Washington to agree on a technical solution to the problem of squeezing near-unlimited traffic into limited bandwidth. They're almost acting like grown-ups -- a spirit we could definitely use more of. Who'da thunk it?

The battlefield
In the red-and-white corner, there's cable giant Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) . It's the United States' second-largest Internet access provider today, but the shared nature of cable modem networks makes them more susceptible to slowdowns under heavy traffic than point-to-point connections like DSL lines or Verizon's (NYSE: VZ  ) FiOS fiber optics.

In the green corner, we have peer-to-peer file distribution service BitTorrent, capable of bringing even the fastest networks to their knees. A head-on clash between these natural enemies was always inevitable. Last October, Comcast admitted to placing restrictions on the bandwidth available to BitTorrent data streams.

The negotiations
BitTorrent's backers understand that their service can cause trouble for innocent bystanders, and they seem to have come to the dealmaking table with uncharacteristically humble attitudes for a bunch of high-tech head honchos. Still, Comcast's previous fix -- dampening down BitTorrent for all users -- was a poor solution.

The two groups' final agreement calls for more smarter network management. It's a "protocol agnostic" technique that will step in and limit the heaviest network users when their bandwidth demands cause slowdowns for other users. This will require new network infrastructure hardware with the ability to make these adjustments on the fly, but Comcast is in the midst of upgrading its networks to the smarter and higher-capacity DOCSIS 3.0 standard anyway, so its management seems to have shrugged their shoulders and said, "Sure, why not?"

So we have a tacit agreement that unlimited traffic is bad, mmmkay, but that a purely technical solution is both possible and desirable. Comcast ends up with a more robust network, so there's some tit-for-tat in this deal. Other service providers may follow suit, to keep their customers satisfied, if nothing else. Both the Torrent people and the cable guys are out there, spreading the word and trying to persuade the likes of AT&T (NYSE: T  ) and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC  ) to go along with the program.

Lots of winners, no losers
The obvious winner -- other than your average Internet user -- is privately held BitTorrent, of course. But other bandwidth-thirsty content slingers benefit from smoother network traffic, too. There's probably a party at Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) YouTube headquarters as we speak, and Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) just had its online video feature upgraded (well, at least when Comcast is done with its upgrade).

While it might sound like a problem for third-party traffic distribution experts like Akamai (Nasdaq: AKAM  ) , this is actually a good thing for them as well. Comcast is simply alleviating a bottleneck in the data delivery chain, and ends up giving Akamai's servers a clearer line to end users.

If the service providers can treat the bandwidth problem with technical fixes and some simple human decency, the need for political wrangling goes away. I'm glad to see it happen, but would never have thought it possible. Rock on, dudes.

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