Friday, August 29, 2008

Comcast limits bandwidth

Comcast announced today that starting October 1st, it will limit bandwidth usage for its high-speed Internet customers to 250GB/month. The first time that a subscriber exceeds the limit, they'll get a warning; if they do it again within six months, their high-speed Internet service could be turned off for a year. That's right, a year.

It's no surprise that Comcast is implementing bandwidth caps. The company was penalized by the FCC for interfering with BitTorrent traffic, so it's looking for alternative ways of limiting its network load. However, its decision raises two issues: First, is 250GB/month an appropriate limit, and second, how will consumers measure their bandwidth use to make sure that they don't use more than the maximum?

Comcast's press release gives examples of what can fit into 250GB: 50 million emails or 124 standard-definition movies. The problem, of course, is that people don't use their Internet connections for only one purpose, such as email--they use them for many different things. Someone who uses an online backup and restore service for their hard disk could use up most of their monthly limit in one session. If you use Vonage, Skype or some other VoIP service, that's going to count against your monthly limit. (One assumes that you'll be able to use Comcast's own VoIP service as much as you want, however.) And, if you've got something like a Slingbox or AppleTV, you could use as much as 15MB per minute of video. So, 250GB could get used up very quickly.

That brings us to the second issue: Comcast is providing no way whatsoever for subscribers to see how much bandwidth they've used. They recommend that customers install bandwidth monitoring software on their computers. That's all well and good for PC applications, but it won't track usage by a TiVo, Squeezebox, Slingbox, Vonage VoIP adapter, or similar devices. Mobile phone companies can tell subscribers their phone usage down to the second--why can't Comcast provide a webpage that tracks subscribers' bandwidth usage? After all, they have to be measuring it in order to enforce their 250GB limit.

Perhaps Comcast thinks that so many people will complain about this limit that they'll get the FCC to agree to content-based throttling. I think that it's more likely that the reverse will happen--Comcast will tick so many people off that the FCC will once again intervene and force the company to adopt a much higher limit. When subscribers who are using their Internet connections for perfectly legitimate purposes start to see their service cut off, the feces will hit the fan.

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