A discussion broke out a while back on Comcast’s decision to limit users to 250GB of file transfers a month. My Beneficent Webmaster took the position against it, arguing that these companies promise unlimited downloads and now they’re putting restrictions on it and the problems that they cite are the product of infrastructure problems that they refuse to correct. Brandon thinks that Comcast’s decision is extremely reasonable because nobody should need more than that kind of transfers and anybody that does is costing Comcast money.

At the time I leaned more towards Brandon’s point-of-view. The big thing for me was (and is) that Comcast and other providers at least be honest about whatever restrictions that they’re doing rather than using backdoor methods to restrict usage to profitable levels. That sounds right to me.

The more I’ve been thinking about it, though, the more concerned about this policy I am becoming. I’m not concerned insofar as 250GB is not beyond reasonable and that for current usage anybody using more than that needs to be on a business account. That’s all right. What concerns me, though, is that these policies will affect usage that I think may be harmful in the long run and that they will affect usage in ways that prevent Comcast (and other providers) from making decisions to improve infrastructure that would improve things for everyone. In short, I’m worried that applying severe economic pressures against heavy usage will prevent future commerce.

Right now 250GB is extraordinarily reasonable for a month. It’s really difficult to imagine anybody using more than that unless they’re doing something business-oriented, illegal, or both. But that’s right now. That’s with products and services that are currently on the market. By improving infrastructure, they could be opening up more and better services and because they don’t need to make improvements for the bottom line these services may be delayed or never come to pass.

Everyone has a story like this, but I’ll tell it anyway. Once upon a time, a 20GB HD was all that I could possibly need. I really couldn’t imagine what I’d do with more than that. Then came digital music and suddenly 80GB was required and eventually it was not enough without making sacrifices on the quality of audio that I wanted to listen to. However, hard drive costs kept going down as the drives became bigger, and so not only could I go buy a HD with the space that I wanted, but I could improve the quality of the music that I was ripping. Then, when they went down even more, I could start saving my video to HD the same way that I had my music. Suddenly it became hard to find ways to fill the amounts of space that I could get.

Demand sometimes follows capacity. Had the HD never become larger, I would have stuck with relatively low-quality music rips and all of my movies would still be on DVD and VHS and burned media. I would have been fine with that because I wouldn’t have known what I was missing out on. But increases in capacity have given me more than I ever could have dreamed of. I am worried that if infrastructure does not improve, Internet capacity will not improve, and we’ll start missing out on things that don’t really occur to us.

Of course current capacity allows us to stream videos during most or all of our waking hours without having to worry about running into Comcast’s imposed limitations. So having conquered video and audio and games, what’s left? Well, for one thing, higher quality videos. The videos that we stream over are okay, but they’re not going to look good on the latest televisions. Nobody expects them to, really. That’s not what they’re for. But why not? Why can’t we do that? More to the point, why must I simply get used to these low-quality videos periodically skipping and goofing up when I’m using during peek hours? The short-term solution is “Don’t use during peak hours”, but wouldn’t it be better if we could use the Internet as reliably as we use the telephone and cable television? We accept less and unless things improve technologically I’m not terribly sure that we’ll ever get more.

It’s pretty presumptuous for me to say that Comcast should take it in the chin so that the Internet can become a lot more than it currently is. A lot of the money that is going to be made by content providers won’t be made by Comcast and definitely won’t be made unless they they’re getting reimbursed for the improvements that they invest in. So in that sense I think it’s fair that providers take in more money from people that use their services more heavily. The problem that I have with Comcast compared to say Time-Warner is that Comcast’s approach is entirely punitive. It’s not that they want more money for more usage so much as they don’t want high-volume users at all. That’s at odds with what I think everyone’s goal should be that everybody becomes a high-volume user. It’s too much to ask a provider to take a financial hit in service of that goal, but at least with a tiered system there’ll be room for expansion.

A great comparison is with cell phones. Cell phones really started taking off when companies could start offering large volumes of minutes so that people didn’t have to worry about the meter running every time they use it. There are still excess fees, but it’s been expansive enough and the competition has been fierce enough that it hasn’t gotten in the way of increased usage. It would have been very different, though, if cell phone companies had announced “Anyone who uses more than 1,500 is kicked off of our plan.”

Of course, the cell phone companies couldn’t have done that because if Verizon were to have instituted such a policy then Cingular would have seen a great potential market and would have catered to high-volume users. Unfortunately, no such level of competition exists in the Internet World. The services offered by cable, telco, and satellite companies are too different to be in direct competition with one another and putting in your own line is not realistic for large segments of the market. So they could theoretically just focus on milking whatever money they can from the current infrastructure without any substantial improvements.

What gives me hope is that some ISPs do seem to be still investing in infrastructure. AT&T was continually improving their package back in Estacado and were boasting speeds a lot faster than the DSL I was getting in Colosse. In fact, Comcast itself has just unleashed a new service with faster connections. I see it in my downloads times which are now faster than ever. That’s not enough to alleve my concerns, though, because despite the improvements with Comcast there is still quite a bit of variation and during peek hours it is still moving slowly and despite the wizbang new technology even things like watching videos can still cause problems. All of that tells me that the improvements are well shy of what they need to be.


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8 Responses to Bandwidth Limiting The Future?

  1. Webmaster says:

    Sorry, Will, but I disagree with you on salient points:

    Right now 250GB is extraordinarily reasonable for a month. It’s really difficult to imagine anybody using more than that unless they’re doing something business-oriented, illegal, or both.

    You shouldn’t need to purchase a business-level (intended for server hosting) account merely to be sure you stay under the cap for telecommuting. 250 GB racks up rather quickly when you’re doing so and have constant traffic to and from a remote location.

    A lot of the money that is going to be made by content providers won’t be made by Comcast and definitely won’t be made unless they they’re getting reimbursed for the improvements that they invest in.

    Unfortunately, no such level of competition exists in the Internet World. The services offered by cable, telco, and satellite companies are too different to be in direct competition with one another and putting in your own line is not realistic for large segments of the market. So they could theoretically just focus on milking whatever money they can from the current infrastructure without any substantial improvements.

    This is precisely what is happening, Will.

    Comcast, and other providers, have already been reimbursed for the improvements because they have been given an inordinate amount of monopoly areas (areas where the choice is them or nothing, since dialup ISP’s have been dying everywhere as the antique dialup equipment no longer meets bandwidth needs). They have been allowed to set pricing in ways that are actually very high cost compared to the pricing of areas elsewhere in the world that have MUCH better service.

    What they have done, however, is failed to improve their service and failed to properly maintain their equipment and bring service to other areas. In the same way we had to legislate requirements that phone service be brought to rural areas, we’re in the same boat with broadband capability; urban areas have it made, some suburbs are good, but there are vast areas of America where the ISP’s have failed to provide servicing at all.

    The ISP’s – Comcast and others – are simply sitting on their existing setups to milk money. Considering that the bandwidth used by pedestrian programs like instant messaging increases every year due to protocol padding, considering the ever-increasing usage of cameraphone tech and voice over IP, and considering the ever-heavier data requirements of relatively simple things like online games (World of Warcraft as one example), 250 GB isn’t going to be “reasonable” at all in a very short time.

    The problem that I have with Comcast compared to say Time-Warner is that Comcast’s approach is entirely punitive. It’s not that they want more money for more usage so much as they don’t want high-volume users at all.

    It would have been very different, though, if cell phone companies had announced “Anyone who uses more than 1,500 is kicked off of our plan.”

    Actually, it’s VERY similar to the Sprint fiasco recently when they were caught kicking users off their service claiming “inordinate use of tech support” when Sprint were shipping broken phones or otherwise having their usual crap-service network problems that required the users to call in for troubleshooting.

    In fact, Comcast itself has just unleashed a new service with faster connections.

    Where you are, maybe. The “new growth” areas where Comcast and others are trying to move into/expand, get the new tech.

    Where it sucks is areas like Colosse where Comcast has a virtual monopoly. These areas barely see servicing, see no upgrades, and constantly get bugged about buying larger packages and paying out more money to get to the same level of service that people in other areas of the country are getting on the BASIC package. Case in point, when Comcast took over our area, the had an advertising/pr campaign about “everyone” getting tons of new channels and faster internet speeds as the result of the Comcast takeover… while hiding in the fine print the fact that you had to “upgrade” from the basic package to the “everything and the kitchen sink and all the porn channels” setup (over $200/month) to see any previously-unoffered channels (in fact, the basic package had channels taken AWAY) and buy the extra-ultra-big “business internet” package to see any improvements in your ‘net service.

  2. Gannon says:

    The bigger issue is that the US has a crumbling infrasructure. Without huge investments, online distribution of HD movies isn’t realistic.

  3. Webmaster says:

    Gannon,

    “Crumbling” isn’t the word I’d use… but yes, the issue IS that the US has infrastructure problems caused mostly by greed and the wave of “deregulation” and “privatization” pushes of the past few decades.

    As odd as it may sound for me to say, I’m of the opinion that for certain necessities (water, power, sewer, line communications, transportation) the case can easily be made that a highly regulated and controlled government monopoly will serve the public interest better than random, ad-hoc companies that achieve virtual monopoly status either by hook, crook, or exclusivity agreements with localized government entities (city/county level).

    The reason is that the government-regulated and somewhat controlled entity (like AT&T was for a while in telecomm) can most easily be required to expand services to ALL areas of the country and to keep their service and equipment up to a specific standard. The “cost” of their monopoly is paid back to the consumers by ensuring that ALL interested consumers have access to service (at the same price) and by government watch to be sure that the monopoly power is not leveraged into abusive, unreasonable pricing.

    A good example of this is our power systems: as power infrastructure “deregulation” has come in to different areas of the country, we can pretty much chart system decay on a linear path; when an area deregulates, improvements stop and the only upkeep done becomes band-aid level repair. The mass power outages on the east coast a few years ago showed a lot of the problem, where needed upgrades hadn’t been done and the system simply overloaded.

    The choices seem to be between “stagnate and fail” or “improve”, but the private market winds up stalling trying to get “the other guy” to pay for the cost, while the consumers sit praying the latest set of band-aid repairs will hold up for another year.

  4. logtar says:

    Assuming that a movie watched over Netflix new program is about a gig (and not full HD)… what if it was or it will be, like you pointed out, in the near future that transfer size might just not be adequate for anyone. I remember when I first built my site in 2004 that 2gigs transfer rate a month was a lot, that was only until I started using that up in 10 days about 2 years ago.

  5. trumwill says:

    You shouldn’t need to purchase a business-level (intended for server hosting) account merely to be sure you stay under the cap for telecommuting.

    Business-level is not always intended for server hosting. There are levels for small businesses that rack up more than a household would require but aren’t running any Internet servers or anything of the like. When I was the solo IT dude at a relatively small company, we had multiple options.

    Actually, it’s VERY similar to the Sprint fiasco recently when they were caught kicking users off their service claiming “inordinate use of tech support” when Sprint were shipping broken phones or otherwise having their usual crap-service network problems that required the users to call in for troubleshooting.

    I direct everybody to Web and my last conversation on the matter.

    These were not users that happened to be having technical problems and called a few times a month to sort it out. This policy was targeted at people calling in with insane repetition that (a) were trying to get freebies or (b) should have been grateful to be cut loose from their contracts if they were getting service that required them to call in more than once daily over the course of a month. Every dissatisfied Sprint customer I know wants to be cut loose from their contract like those 1,500 were. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the customers that they refuse to let out (for not complaining enough, apparently!) that have the most right to complain.

  6. trumwill says:

    I agree, Logtar. 250GB is plenty for now, just as a 10, 20, 40, 120, 300, and 500GB HD was the most I’d ever need…

  7. Brandon Berg says:

    Will:
    That’s not enough to alleve my concerns, though, because despite the improvements with Comcast there is still quite a bit of variation and during peek hours it is still moving slowly and despite the wizbang new technology even things like watching videos can still cause problems.

    Are you sure that the problem is with Comcast? It could be that the servers hosting the videos are overloaded, or that there’s some network congestion between them and Comcast’s hardware.

  8. trumwill says:

    Good point.

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