August 28, 2008

Comcast's New "Two Strikes and You're Dead" Internet Usage Policy -- and More

Greetings. Comcast has announced a 250 GB/month "death penalty" Internet usage cap, effective October 1. This appears to be based on the total of all downloading and uploading. (For reference purposes, here is a copy of the text from the page linked just above, as observed this evening before any possible changes by Comcast. Typos are in the original text.)

Comcast and some observers will no doubt suggest that 250 GB is a generous cap, particularly in light of some ISPs apparently planning caps an order of magnitude or more lower. I'll have more to say about "other ISPs" below.

Some specific details of Comcast's new policy are definite eyebrow raisers.

The cap is not a "no more usage after this point" cap. It's a "you're no longer our customer" cap. Exceed the limit twice in six months and you're tossed from Comcast for a full year. Due to limited practical competition in many areas, that would mean that some former customers would not have access to any other broadband Internet services at affordable (or in some cases any!) prices.

Comcast appears not to be providing customers with a means to check their current Internet usage volumes. They simply suggest that their subscribers go out and find software for this purpose for all of their computers and handle it completely by themselves.

The same cap applies to all levels of residential service, regardless of the speed tier to which the customer has subscribed.

The usual table of comparative usage is presented of course, to supposedly inform users about what 250 GB really means. Well, actually, the document provides the table twice, and the numbers are different in each!

Table 1:

Sending 20,000 high-resolution photos,
Sending 40 million emails;
Downloading 50,000 songs; or
Viewing 8,000 movie trailers

Table 2:

Send 50 million emails (at 0.05 KB/email)
Download 62,500 4 MB songs (at 4 MB/song)
Download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 GB/movie)
Upload 25,000 hi-resolution digital photos (at 10 MB/photo)

Hmm, 10 million e-mails appeared magically between Table 1 and Table 2! And man, those are sure short Table 2 e-mails -- only 50 bytes each! Oops, let's try figure out what they really meant. Maybe 5K each? Oh well, the details don't matter, right?

But of course, most people use their Internet connections for a mix of applications -- many of which run autonomously, so no one element of those conflicting tables will apply in isolation for most customers.

Hey, wait a minute. Is something important missing from those tables? 125 standard-definition movies says Table 2. Huh. The cable companies, including Comcast, have been telling us that standard definition is obsolete, that we all need to upgrade to HD service! I wonder why they didn't include HD movies in their tables, given that those will increasingly dominate what viewers watch.

Perhaps this issue relates to the fact that a typical HD movie can run maybe five times the size of the same SD movie? Yeah, I guess "25 HD movies" (as your total usage for the month) wouldn't look so great, especially when Comcast's own on-demand/PPV movie offerings don't count against your Internet usage cap at all! Well, so much for outside movie services providing HD. "We don't need no stinkin' competition!" -- right?

With Comcast leading the way, we can assume that other ISPs -- cable and DSL -- will be hot to trot for this bandwagon.

I saw this image in a Time Warner Internet ad a few days ago. One imagines that such "No Limits" promotions will be seen as a historical artifact very shortly. I visualize Wile E. Coyote crouching in a cave, smiling at a rack of equipment labeled "ACME Bandwidth Limiter" -- as the Road Runner zooms along a nearby desert road. Suddenly a light on the ACME unit turns red, a metal wall pops up in front of the Road Runner, and the speedy bird finally meets his match is a flurry of flying feathers. Wile attaches his bib, grabs his fork and knife, and heads out for his long-awaited reward.

Reasonable network management by ISPs should not only be accepted, but also expected. We all want the Internet to run smoothly. But sloppy, arbitrary, technically questionable, or anti-competitive policies are not acceptable. It's time to start a serious dialogue regarding the differences between these two situations, and how as consumers of Internet services we can obtain enough information about ISP operations to make informed judgments about such matters.

In the meantime, Comcast might want to clean up their bandwidth cap FAQ on an ASAP basis -- before David Letterman gets hold of it.


Posted by Lauren at August 28, 2008 06:18 PM | Permalink
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