Comcast Busts a Cap in Your Broadband Ass
Comcast has announced that beginning October 1, they will institute a 250 GB monthly bandwidth cap for their high speed Internet customers. If you're a customer, you can now look forward to monitoring your bandwidth usage the way you do with cell phone minutes. Comcast insists the bandwidth cap is consistent with previous policies, and the publication of specific numbers is an attempt to clarify the policy for customers.
As early as 2003, heavy bandwidth users reported receiving letters from Comcast indicating they had exceeded bandwidth limitations for their service, in violation of Comcast's AUP. At the time, Comcast's AUP did not specify bandwidth limitations for general Internet traffic and, in fact, Comcast advertised their high speed Internet service as "unlimited." Publicly, Comcast maintained their Internet offerings were indeed unlimited. The recent announcement by Comcast to officially cap bandwidth usage at 250 GB per month may have therefore been expected, but their claim that this cap is consistent with, and simply clarifies previous policies indicates a contempt for their customer's rights and intelligence.
Comcast's rationale for instituting bandwidth caps is that it is necessary for maintaining the best overall network performance for the majority of customers. By limiting usage of the highest-bandwidth customers, Comcast aims to make more bandwidth available network-wide. S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, argues that this is an essentially flawed approach to network management. "If Comcast has oversold its network to the point of creating congestion problems, then well-disclosed caps for Internet use are a better short-term solution than Comcast's current practice of illegally blocking Internet traffic. But in the long term, congestion should be treated as a temporary problem -- one that is managed without discrimination. If the United States had genuine broadband competition, Internet providers would not be able to profit from artificial scarcity -- they would invest in their networks to keep pace with consumer demand."
Turner argues that such bandwidth caps not only hurt consumers, but stall innovation and competition in the marketplace. "[Bandwidth caps] undermine the amount of venture capital that goes to new companies reliant on the Internet for distributing their product. If venture capital sees there is no avenue for distributing their product, they will go on to other things. For example, A two hour high definition movie on Apple TV consumes about four GB of bandwidth. So a 250 GB cap is about four hours a day of high definition video consumption. If these caps don't increase over time, they will present a direct threat to companies trying to distribute media over the Internet. Consumers have very little choice in the video market. The Internet provides an alternative to that, but if these bandwidth caps are set too low, it's going to directly undermine these avenues for competition. It will only benefit the cable companies."
According to Comcast's FAQ, most users fall well below the 250 GB cap. They claim the median bandwidth usage is "approximately 2-3 GB each month, [reflecting] typical residential use of the service for purposes such as sending and receiving e-mail, surfing the Internet, and watching streaming video." According to Comcast's statistics, only the top 1% of customers would be considered "excessive users." After exceeding the cap, these users may receive a call informing them of their usage. If they exceed bandwidth caps twice within a six month period, Comcast will terminate their service for a year.
Unfortunately, Comcast does not provide tools to help customers meter their bandwidth usage. Instead, their FAQ encourages customers to find information "by simply doing a Web search - for example, a search for "bandwidth meter" will provide some options." This is akin to cell providers asking customers to count their minutes with a stopwatch, and will likely cause a lot of grief for customers, especially those who live in multiple-user households.
Comcast's FAQ indicates that the cap is about equivalent to downloading 125 standard definition movies or 62,500 songs. Take note, though, that P2P technologies like bittorrent rely on users uploading as well as downloading. To share data fairly on a bittorrent network, then, customers could download and share about 60 standard definition movies in a month, and only about 30 if they download high definition videos.
Comcast claims it does not restrict speeds for all users, but has announced that it will slow top speeds for up to 20 minutes for its highest-bandwidth users during periods of network congestion. In practice, this means that for customers who typically only use 3 GB of bandwidth per month (the median usage), but whose usage spikes while sending a lot of large photos to friends, Comcast will degrade their service until that activity is complete. Customers who don't frequently use bittorrent, but may decide to download a Linux distribution via the protocol may find their download speeds artificially limited.
Comcast could do worse (Time Warner has a 5 GB cap), but they could do much better (ISPs such as AT&T and Verizon have no caps). According to Cliff Lee, Manager of Media Relations at Verizon, "Our approach to issues of network capacity has been to increase that capacity, not to try to limit use by our customers. When we see that there is a tremendous demand out of a community for bandwidth, we increase that bandwidth on the [DSL] network. With our FiOS network, there's a tremendous amount of bandwidth built into the network."
Comcast spokespeople did not return Open Media Boston's calls for comment.
Updated Aug 29 at 1:34 PM to add quote from S. Derek Turne