Fowl Snip

Q: What's the deal with Road Runner, Time Warner Cable's Internet service? I'm a customer, and it seems like the system is preventing me from using peer-to-peer networks—when I try to snag files from KaZaA or iMesh, the downloads usually fail. Is Time Warner monkeying with the connection?

Possibly, though Time Warner might contend your comeuppance is richly deserved. Road Runner is, indeed, frustrating some users by curbing their ability to send or receive files. The company says it's only targeting a few bandwidth-hogging scofflaws; P2P aficionados, on the other hand, smell a conspiracy designed to protect the media empire's film and music profits. Mr. Roboto tried his darnedest to delve beyond the "he said, she said" rhetoric on this one, but Lady Truth remains elusive.

Complaints about Road Runner's tactics first popped up last month at Dslreports.com, a treasure trove of broadband gossip. Some tech-savvy grumblers discovered that Road Runner hunts for people sending data through "port 1214," a key connection point for file-sharing networks. If the scanner detects activity over that port, goes the story, the link between computer and network is promptly throttled.

Time Warner is adamant that only a tiny percentage of surfers ever receive such treatment. "Road Runner is not blocking any applications or the access to any Web site," says spokesman Mark Harrad. "We have and continue to employ bandwidth-management techniques to ensure that all of our customers get high-quality service. That includes limiting the availability of bandwidth to the few individual users who upload massive quantities of data in violation of their service agreement. This is very rare."

Not rare enough for Michael Tully, the East Village resident who alerted Mr. Roboto to this fracas. He insists that his KaZaA use was relatively light, limited to the occasional "Triumph the Insult Dog" video clip. But Road Runner stymied his file sharing regardless, inspiring Tully to query one of the ISP's online techies, "Mitch S." Mitch didn't mention any "bandwidth-management techniques," but did note that the fine print on Road Runner's service agreement forbids customers from using their computers as servers—which, in effect, is what every P2Per does.

"Does all of that mean that when I signed up I agreed not to use file-sharing services?" Tully typed upon reading Mitch's legalese.

"That is correct," Mitch replied.

So are only the most heavy-duty users penalized, or is the port-choking part of a broader campaign? To test Road Runner's tolerance, Mr. Roboto installed KaZaA's software and snooped about for Disco D MP3s. (Yes, yes, I also buy his albums. Take that, RIAA.) The first five downloads came off without a hitch, but the failure messages began to pile up thereafter. My firewall reported that port 1214 had just been scanned several times, though none of the scans traced back to domains readily identifiable as Road Runner-owned.

I called Road Runner's customer-service hot line for a helping hand. After being subjected to some very grating on-hold music for a good 15 minutes, I listened while a cheerful woman served up a five-second kiss-off: "We don't block file sharing. Anything else we can help you with?"

Alas, the mystery persists—cabal or glitch? I got slightly better results by disabling uploads, though hoarding one's MP3 caches obviously isn't in the P2P spirit.

Some ticked-off folks have suggested a class-action lawsuit, noting that their Time Warner service agreement promises unlimited Internet access. But the company's legal heinie appears to be covered, so until the P2P networks figure out how to route around the problem, your days of limitless downloads are on hiatus.

As are Tully's, though he's philosophical about the pickle. "I can objectively appreciate how much easier it would be for Time Warner to deliver speedy Internet service if so many people weren't downloading porn and music nonstop," he says. "[But] I still feel like having the ability to download porn and music nonstop was a right which I was implicitly granted when I upgraded."


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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