Comcast to make monthly Internet use cap official

NEW YORK (AP) — Comcast Corp., the nation’s second-largest Internet service provider, Thursday said it would set an official limit on the amount of data subscribers can download and upload each month.

On Oct. 1, the cable company will update its user agreement to say that users will be allowed 250 gigabytes of traffic per month, the company announced on its Web site.

Comcast has already reserved the right to cut off subscribers who use too much bandwidth each month, without specifying exactly what constitutes excessive use.

“We’ve listened to feedback from our customers who asked that we provide a specific threshold for data usage and this would help them understand the amount of usage that would qualify as excessive,” the company said in a statement on its Web site.

Comcast: Users Who Exceed 250GB Cap Twice Face Service “Termination”

Sam Gustin says: It’s been rumored, but now it’s confirmed. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, is instituting a 250GB bandwidth threshold to begin October 1, the company said today.

“If a customer uses more than 250 GB and is one of the top users of our service, he or she may be contacted by Comcast to notify them of excessive use,” the company said in an update on its network management Web page.

As part of the policy, if a user exceeds the 250GB usage cap twice in a six-month period, they face losing their service.

As a (relatively pleased) Comcast customer, I have sort of mixed feelings about this.

On one hand, this is better than a lot of alternatives. It’s good that they’re coming out and giving a number. I much prefer above-the-board policies over vague terms like “too much”. If 38 pieces of flare is the number, say it’s 38. I also think that this is probably better than Time-Warner’s tact of tiered plans. My first thought was “Comcast should let people that go over just pay extra” but I think that would incentivize them to revise that number downward and find ways to overcount used bandwidth because it’d mean more money. By kicking people off, they’re drawing a line in the sand that would more accurately put the limits closer to profitability. It’s worth noting that the companies that are simply charging more for “over-use” are putting their caps waaaaay lower. Absurdly low. That’s another good thing about Comcast’s plan… 250GB is a lot of transfer. Almost enough that you can be sure that anyone that goes above that is probably doing something rather sneaky.

Almost, but not quite. That’s what brings me to the reservations with the plan. As Web pointed out when we discussed TW’s tiered plan, used bandwidth is something very hard to gauge. Sometimes when you don’t think you’re using much, you are. Sometimes when you think you’re using a lot, the people at the other end are trying to save on their own bandwidth and have thus minimized the transfers. Could a person that’s not downloading tons and tons of nefarious gigabytes from BitTorrent or what have you go over 250GB? It’s not easy, but it can be done. Though they throw out a lot of numbers about how many songs someone could download or whatever, they overlook one huge thing which is streaming video and streaming audio. Some people don’t just watch trailers online, they watch movies from Netflix and TV shows from Hulu and listen to Internet radio and Rhapsody and a ton of other stuff. I honestly don’t know how much of that would be required to hit their maximum. That’s a problem in and of itself. I’m a relatively knowledgeable guy when it comes to computers… and I don’t know.

The good news is that they will alert users that are going over the limits. That’s good. They need to do something like that. If I’m at risk of getting my service shut off entirely, I want to know. The problem is that I want to know well before it happens. I need some sort of meter or gauge. If they add that, that’d go a pretty long way towards easing the uncertainty and allowing people to moderate their use when they can and if they find that they’re running low on bandwidth they can curb their uses towards more critical functions.

So in review, I think that they did a good job setting the limit as high as they did in order to target only the worst offenders and it’s good that they’re giving hard numbers. They just need to give a little more notice than a phone call when it’s already too late and cut service the second time around.


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10 Responses to Comcast Limits Bandwidth

  1. Brandon Berg says:

    They’re saying that there are bandwidth metering utilities available, so you should be able to find one pretty easily. A search for “bandwidth meter” turns up at least one program with that name.

    By kicking people off, they’re drawing a line in the sand that would more accurately put the limits closer to profitability.

    I bet they’re still losing money on people who approach that limit. If the median user transfers only 2-3 gigabytes per month, that means that the majority of Comcast’s capacity is being used by a small minority of users. If Comcast were making money on people transferring eight gigabytes per day, they’d want to keep them, and if they wanted to keep them they wouldn’t terminate their service—they’d just throttle their bandwidth.

  2. bobvis says:

    Would bandwidth monitoring software be easy to set up at the router level? What if I have three or four computers working? It would be annoying to have to add up the figures from all of them to see how I am doing. (I regularly link up 4 computers at home.)

    It would be nice if they could send e-mails. 200 GB used and 240 used would seem about right.

  3. Webmaster says:

    The answer is: Comcast is desperately retooling because the FCC is spanking them for illegal packet forging right now.

    The secondary problem, as you mention, is that knowing how much bandwidth you use is nigh impossible. Listen to an internet radio station? Watch a lot of Youtube (or other variety) videos? God forbid, run the occasional server-wide backup?

    And of course it gets worse when it’s a family unit or multiple roommates sharing bandwidth as well.

    The other side of Comcast is their absolutely abysmal idea of what constitutes “customer service” – constant service interruptions and problems, and the near impossibility of reaching their support and getting someone out for signal issues, have made the service a joke in the Colosse area. Their predecessor in the area were much better in this regard before Comcast bought them out and made the area into a monopoly control area.

    To paraphrase their advertising campaign down here – “Comcast. It’s Craptastic.”

  4. trumwill says:

    Brandon,

    I’ve seen some bandwidth stuff, but most of it is to see how much you can download at once and/or how fast. Not keeping a meter of monthly use. Though such a program probably exists. At any rate, the thing I most want to know is how much Comcast thinks I’ve used since that’s what matters.

    You’re likely right that they’re losing money on me even if I’m well under the 250GB. I said as much in my post about Time Warner, who was also losing money. I don’t have a problem with companies ditching customers that are losing them money, though I really, really want them to come clean about what the parameters are. So at the least I’m glad Comcast is doing that.

  5. trumwill says:

    Bob, that’s a good question. It’s what I would likely need if I want to get a handle on my usage.

  6. trumwill says:

    Web,

    I didn’t realize that I’d asked a question. In any case, I’ve been quite pleased by Comcast and have found them ridiculously better than Time-Warner in Estacado. I guess it varies from region to region.

    You and Bob raise an interesting point about households with multiple people. Bandwidth can add up quickly amongst multiple people.

  7. Brandon Berg says:

    Bob:
    I don’t know. Seems like that would have to be handled by router firmware, and I don’t know which, if any, routers support it.

    Webmaster:
    The secondary problem, as you mention, is that knowing how much bandwidth you use is nigh impossible. Listen to an internet radio station? Watch a lot of Youtube (or other variety) videos? God forbid, run the occasional server-wide backup?

    None of those would put you over the limit. 250 GB per month is just under 100KB per second, nonstop. High-quality streaming audio is just a sixth of that. Youtube videos are probably less than half that—they’re not very high-quality. I don’t think Comcast even gives you enough upload bandwidth to hit the limit by doing backups.

    If high-quality streaming video is 10 MB per minute, you’d have to watch an average of over 13 hours per day to hit the limit that way.

    Sure, you could hit the limit if you have multiple heavy users on the same account, but I don’t see a problem with that. Ordinary users transferring a few gigabytes per month shouldn’t have to subsidize ultra-heavy users downloading a hundred times that or more. IIRC, Comcast doesn’t apply the cap to business-class accounts, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask households exceeding the limit to step up to that.

  8. Webmaster says:

    I don’t think Comcast even gives you enough upload bandwidth to hit the limit by doing backups.

    You misunderstand. I run semi-regular backups of a server to my home machine. The original spawn for that was 30 GB. I’ve got it doing an incremental setup now, but it can still be easily a GB or two.

    Sure, you could hit the limit if you have multiple heavy users on the same account, but I don’t see a problem with that. Ordinary users transferring a few gigabytes per month shouldn’t have to subsidize ultra-heavy users downloading a hundred times that or more.

    Dad and two kids playing something like World of Warcraft can saturate you pretty quickly. Then you add in devices like an Xbox360 or PS3 to the mix, or other “internet-aware” devices that like to phone home constantly.

    Bandwidth usage has been going up even for what ought to be very simple programs, because the programmers have been assuming the end user has more and more bandwidth available out there. The problem right now is, companies don’t want to upgrade their networks even to third-world spec, they just want to sit on them and leech as much money as they can. They advertised certain speeds and “unlimited” usage, and now they don’t want to live up to their contractual obligations. Remember also the hubbub a while back with networks like Time Warner wanting to “charge back” websites that were frequently visited (like google and youtube) for the “other end” of the bandwidth they were using.

    I don’t find that “fair” in the slightest. Far to the contrary, I think the various cable/telecomm companies ought to be held accountable for their false advertising and forced to (a) upgrade and (b) allow competition in ALL markets via access laws (just like local and long-distance phone service and electricity providers are now).

  9. Brandon Berg says:

    The original spawn for that was 30 GB. I’ve got it doing an incremental setup now, but it can still be easily a GB or two.

    Okay, so that’s a one-time hit of 30 GB with an incremental (weekly?) 1-2 GB. That’s still a small fraction of the cap.

    Dad and two kids playing something like World of Warcraft can saturate you pretty quickly.

    Some googling suggests that WoW uses about 10MB of bandwidth per hour, or 2.8KB per second. At that rate, you could have four people playing nonstop for a month and only consume 10% of the cap. Apparently there are some more bandwidth-intensive games that may take as much as 100MB per player per hour, but that still means you’d have to have four people playing nonstop for the entire month to hit the cap.

    Then you add in devices like an Xbox360 or PS3 to the mix, or other “internet-aware” devices that like to phone home constantly.

    I don’t have time to look up the numbers, but my guess would be that the bandwidth requirements for these are insignificant when compared to the cap.

    If you really think that these are good examples, then I don’t think you’ve grasped just how much 250GB per month is. The only common application that can consume this kind of bandwidth is video, and this is on the order of 12 hours of DVD-quality video per day. I guess if you were regularly downloading uncompressed Blu-Ray images you could hit it, but who does that? And why shouldn’t those who do pay their fair share?

    The problem right now is, companies don’t want to upgrade their networks even to third-world spec, they just want to sit on them and leech as much money as they can.

    Why should they add capacity if it will all be consumed by customers who are unprofitable to service anyway? It just doesn’t make economic sense.

    I’m all for freeing up the market to allow competition, but I really doubt that a competitive market would produce higher caps at current prices. What I think would likely happen is that competitors would offer cheaper plans with lower caps, which would allow regular users to stop subsidizing ultra-heavy users, leaving the people who complain about Comcast’s extremely generous 250GB cap stuck paying their own way at considerably higher rates than they currently pay.

    Also, the “third-world” comparison is bogus. Beijing really isn’t third-world anymore, and their Internet infrastructure is probably government-subsidized. It doesn’t matter how poor a country is—if it has 1.3 billion people, it can raise enough tax revenues to bring its capital city up to first-world standards in at least some ways. Some Australians have been commenting on articles about the Comcast cap saying that their transfers are capped at just a fraction of 250 GB.

  10. trumwill says:

    Comcast just recently upgraded the Internet in the area, interestingly enough. I was at first upset when I found out that my rates here would be higher than they were in Estacado, but that’s all attributable to the speed boost. Once the promotional offer expires, I’ll go down a notch on speed.

    I don’t need my internet to be faster than it is, though I must confess that I would like it to be more reliable. Some content like videos and whatnot are not capable of handling even momentary drops in connection. I would like them to upgrade that even if it meant paying more or having tougher caps.

    Isn’t one of the reasons that Asia’s cities are so much more wired because they didn’t have to upgrade? By which I mean that because so much of the cities have been built so recently that they could be built with the networks already in mind? Seems that newer cities would have a lot of advantages as far as that goes.

    Brandon may be right about the effects of deregulation. I could definitely see a sprint towards the most profitable, least active users. I could also see them taking avid users and saying to themselves “Wow, I bet these people will pay a lot for more access if that’s what they have to do” the same way that the satellite company I used to work for had some outrageously expensive programs for people who wanted to be able to watch everything.

    I think that the important thing here is transparency. Web brings up the “Unlimited downloads!” advertising that providers use. It’s important that if they say “unlimited downloads” that they’re not throttling users on the back end or cutting them off. I have to say, though, that most of them have stopped actually saying that.

    In any case, as long as there are no contracts involved, I don’t have a problem with cable companies saying “Okay, now we’re charging for bandwidth in addition to speed”. Yeah, they changed the deal, but we have the ability to opt out if that’s what we really want. As long as they announce the changing of the deal and we can hear what the deal is and decide if it’s something that we can accept.

    I was prepared for Time-Warner’s tiered service and I’m prepared to abide by Comcast’s ceiling. Both are preferable to most alternatives that I can think of that don’t involve telling the corporate entities that they should lose money for my benefit.

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