updated 1/27/2009 9:34:56 PM ET 2009-01-28T02:34:56

Cox Communications, the third-largest cable company in the U.S., stepped on to battleground of the "Net Neutrality" issue Tuesday, saying it will be trying out a new way to keep its subscribers' Internet traffic from jamming up.

Starting on Feb. 9 in parts of Kansas and Arkansas, Cox will give priority to Internet traffic it judges to be time-sensitive, like Web pages, streaming video and online games. File downloads, software updates and other non-time sensitive data may be slowed if there is congestion on the local network, Cox said.

The news is sure to revive the debate about "Net Neutrality," or the question of how much Internet service providers like Cox can interfere with subscriber traffic. Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable company, was sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission last year for its method of traffic management, which involved secretly stifling file sharing, a certain type of Internet traffic. It was the first time regulators waded into the issue.

Comcast is fighting the FCC's ruling in court, but has abandoned its congestion management system in favor of one that doesn't discriminate between different types of traffic. It has also abandoned secrecy and revealed details on how the new system works.

Tests conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany indicated last year that Cox was using the same discriminatory network management system that Comcast employed then. Cox never revealed the details of its system but said it used "protocol filtering," a principle also used by Comcast.

Further testing by the Max Planck Institute indicated that Cox cut back sharply on its use of the old congestion system in August, and that it was shut down by January.

Cox spokesman David Grabert said the company began evaluating its old system after the FCC order on Comcast.

"This new technique is based on the time-sensitive nature of the Internet traffic itself, and we believe it will lead to a smoother Internet experience with fewer delays," the company said on a Web page put up for subscribers.

Cox expects to apply the new technology to all of its Internet subscribers later this year if it proves successful in Kansas and Arkansas. It has 4 million subscribers, Grabert said, but that figure includes business users who would not be affected.

Ben Scott, policy director at Free Press, one of the Washington-based consumer interest groups that complained to the FCC about Comcast, said he was reserving judgment about Cox's new system until he could get more details on its workings. For instance, it's unclear how the company will identify each type of traffic.

"As a baseline, I'm uncomfortable with any network management system that doesn't give the user the choice of how his traffic is treated," Scott said.

Cox Communications is part of privately held Cox Enterprises Inc., based in Atlanta.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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