September 22, 2003 4:00 AM PDT
Putting a lid on broadband use
Keith, who asked to keep his full name private, said he'd subscribed to the service for four years and never had a complaint before. Now he was being labeled a network "abuser."
Worse, he said, Comcast refused to tell him how much downloading was allowed under his contract. A customer service representative had told him there was no specific cap, he said, adding that he might avoid being suspended if he cut his bandwidth usage in half. But even then, the lack of a hard number gave Keith no guarantee.
Cable Internet service subscribers are quietly capping the volume of downloading they allow their subscribers to do. So far, it's only affecting the heaviest users.
As broadband providers strive for ever-speedier and economical service--and bandwidth-hogging features such as video on demand become more popular--these caps may become more common. And they may affect digital subscriber line (DSL) providers as well.
Keith isn't alone in his newfound position under the Internet service provider (ISP) microscope. Other high-volume Comcast subscribers have been getting letters since late summer warning them of overuse. A few others have even had their service suspended after the first warning. Comcast spokeswoman Sarah Eder said that its new enforcement policy was barely two months old.
As Keith and other frustrated users found, the company's warnings to subscribers were not triggered by any "predetermined bandwidth usage threshold," Eder added. Only about 1 percent of subscribers received letters, which were based on having exceeded average usage patterns rather than a specific number, she said.
For now, this quiet imposition of usage caps affects only a tiny fraction of extraordinarily high-volume users. But it goes to the heart of the competitive decisions cable and telephone companies are making as they struggle for broadband dominance. Comcast in particular is working to provide ever-increasing download speeds , and as result it is struggling to contain busy file swappers and others who are putting stress on their networks.
It is not something the broadband providers are eager to talk about. Even as Comcast sends out letters to its customers targeting high-volume users, the company bristles at the notion that the policy is a cap.
It's easy to see why: As cable and DSL companies race to bulk up on subscribers, companies tagged as "bandwidth cappers" could be at a disadvantage. The problem is particularly awkward for cable companies, which have tried to avoid a price war with the telephone companies by promising better quality of service.
"The industry is leery of explicit caps, because even people who don't come anywhere near the caps feel like something is being taken away from them," Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo said. As consumers grow more used to broadband services and begin understanding what to expect from their connections, companies "can't claim their service is unlimited if there is some kind of informal limit," Laszlo added.
Hard caps and fuzzy ones
Different ISPs are taking widely different approaches to this issue, although caps seem for now to be limited to the cable companies.
Cox Communications started phasing in hard usage limits in February, and now a majority of that company's subscribers are limited to downloading 2 gigabytes a day--the equivalent of about two compressed feature-length movies or about 400 MP3 songs. AOL Time Warner's Road Runner cable modem service recently instituted download caps of 40 gigabytes per month.
Comcast's policy has proven most controversial. The company's terms of service say only that users cannot "represent (in the sole judgment of Comcast) an unusually large burden on the network." According to a spokeswoman, the company began sending notes about two months ago to the top 1 percent of the heaviest users--people who collectively use about 28 percent of the company's bandwidth--telling them they were violating their terms of service.
Eder said there was no specific line crossed by these subscribers, but she added that some of those people were downloading the equivalent of 90 movies in a given month.
Comcast customer Keith, a British immigrant, said he used his cable modem service to watch the BBC, have video conversations and trade DVD-quality home movies with his family in the United Kingdom.
Comcast defended the policy of having the unstated--but still enforceable--limitation on bandwidth use, saying that any hard cap would have to change in any case as high-bandwidth applications such as video on demand became popular.
"The Internet is growing, and there are more broadband applications every day," Eder said. "If we were to set an arbitrary number today, we could be changing it tomorrow."
Both Cox and Comcast have a policy of sending warning letters to subscribers before suspending or terminating service. No subscriber would be affected without substantial warning, spokespeople from both companies said.
Some smaller cable companies are imposing much lower caps. Alaska's GCI Cable, for instance, limits its subscribers to transferring just 5 gigabytes a month.
Telephone companies offering DSL service in the United States say they have no limits in place for their users, unlike Canadian, British or Australian counterparts that routinely cap their subscribers' usage. Verizon Communications and SBC Communications, the largest DSL providers in the United States, both said their services remain unlimited.
"The customers buy the lines," SBC spokesman Michael Coe said. "We make whatever bandwidth they need available to them."
There's a limit
The caps are a small but crucial part in the latest round of skirmishing among broadband companies over price and features. Cable companies have had a lead in the consumer market for years, but they're now nervously watching telephone companies' DSL services--particularly co-branded offerings like the SBC Yahoo service--start to close the gap.
Both sides are trying to figure out how best to attract and then support the mainstream dial-up Internet audience, which is finally starting to come to broadband in droves.
DSL companies have brought deeply discounted prices into their arsenal. It's now rare not to see a $29.95 per month offer from the likes of SBC or Verizon, and that's helping bring subscribers in quickly. The cable companies, on the other hand, tout faster download speeds and Web surfing than the average DSL connection provides, and they are working to make their networks even faster.
Comcast, leading the way, has promised to double the average Net surfer's top speeds, from 1.5 megabits per second to 3 megabits per second, and to get even faster in future years. Analysts say the drive to keep very high-volume users under control is necessary if the company is to reach this goal economically.
Most broadband subscribers use their service for some music or video downloading, to send and receive digital photos or for other high-bandwidth applications. But ISPs say that a tiny percentage of people are using an enormous percentage of their total bandwidth. According to Comcast, just 6 percent of subscribers use about 78 percent of the company's bandwidth.
Cable networks are particularly susceptible to the dangers of this imbalanced usage, because all the homes in a given neighborhood share access to the same local network. One extremely high-volume user can therefore have a Net-slowing impact on his neighbors.
Nor are DSL companies exempt from this issue, despite their rhetorical distain for caps today. Even if their subscribers don't share their local wires, DSL uploads and downloads do wind up merging into a shared network a little farther upstream, and so heavy users can wind up having a negative impact on others' speeds.
For this reason, some analysts think that bandwidth usage caps will ultimately be a far more common part of the Net's daily life, particularly at the lowest tiers of service.
"It's partly just so the economics make sense," Jupiter's Laszlo said. "If you've got someone downloading 60 gigabytes a month and paying $29.95, it's hard to make it work."
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