When Comcast Corp. Internet subscriber Robb Topolski was prevented from sharing digital files of Tin Pin Alley-era music with other barbershop quartet enthusiasts, the computer engineer launched a personal investigation.
Topolski, 44, soon found that Comcast was blocking such uploads now and then in an effort to keep its broadband pipes unclogged. He said he understood the need of the company to keep Internet traffic flowing freely, but was dismayed that the blocking was done without notice and seemingly at the expense of select Comcast customers who swap files of music, videos and other bandwidth-sucking data.
The Hillsboro, Ore. resident posted his findings last summer on a Web site for "broadband enthusiasts" that touched off a protest that by January grew into a large-scale Federal Communications Commission investigation.
On Thursday, Topolski will be one of the first witnesses called to testify before the FCC at a scheduled daylong hearing into the network management practices of Comcast and its competitors.
The hearing is being held at Stanford University and is the second such session the FCC will hold this year. The investigation and public hearings are the agency's most serious examination of "Net neutrality," the principle that all Internet traffic be treated equal. Equal treatment of traffic is a long-standing practice on the Internet, and some consumers groups think it should be enforced by regulation because network owners, such as Comcast, have begun asserting more control over the Internet.
"Comcast ultimately has shortchanged some portion of its customers and continues to do so today," said Topolski, who resigned from Intel Corp. last year to battle colon cancer.
Topolski is just one of 17 witnesses scheduled to testify before the five FCC commissioners. But Comcast has declined an FCC request to send an executive to testify as it did at the agency's first hearing on Feb. 25 at Harvard University.
"This obviously isn't just a Comcast issue," said company spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice, who said a company executive testified at the initial hearing in Boston in February because it was more focused on the company's behavior than the one scheduled at Stanford.
Comcast also came under fire after the Harvard hearing for hiring "seat warmers" to help pack the auditorium. Event organizers accused the shills of applauding loudly for pro-industry sentiments and hogging seats that prevented company critics from attending. Comcast endured another round of withering cries of censorship afterward.
Fitzmaurice said the seat warmers were necessary to ensure that the company's views were fairly represented and it was common lobbying industry practice in Washington. She said the company would not be hiring seat warmers for the Stanford hearing.
Comcast acknowledged that it sometimes delays file-sharing traffic for subscribers as a way to keep Web traffic flowing for everyone. After the Harvard hearing, the company said it plans to change the way it manages its network and points to recent partnership announcements with BitTorrent Inc. — a company founded by the inventor of a more efficient successor to file-sharing services such as Napster and KaZaa — and with file-sharing software developer Pando Networks.
After the Pando collaboration was announced on Tuesday, the FCC invited Comcast Chief Technical Officer Tony Werner to testify Thursday.
"We look forward to more fully understanding the goals, scope and time frame of this industry effort," FCC spokesman Robert Kenny said.
Comcast officials said Werner wouldn't testify because he doesn't have enough time to prepare and that he recently suffered a death in the family.
The FCC investigation got started after consumer groups and a provider of online video filed complaints alleging Comcast hampered traffic between users without notice, violating the Internet's tradition of equal treatment of traffic. Two of the groups also asked the FCC to fine Comcast.
"We want to make sure the Internet stays as it is," said Ben Scott of Free Press, one of the groups that has asked the FCC to fine Comcast.
Scott plans to urge the FCC during testimony Thursday to enforce a statement it created in 2005 that says consumers are entitled to access all lawful Internet content. But Comcast and others argues that the statement is not a regulation and is unenforceable.
"Should we give more control to the network owners, who can then decide which Web sites load quickly?" Scott asked. "Can they become the gatekeepers for Internet content?"