September 22, 2003 4:00 AM PDT

Putting a lid on broadband use

Earlier this month, a Philadelphia Comcast broadband subscriber got a letter from his service provider, telling him he'd been using the Internet too much.

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.


What's new:
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.

Bottom line:
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.

More stories on this topic

"I don't mind restrictions, but how can Comcast expect users to stick to a limit when they don't say what the limit is?" he said. "If they're going to impose limits, that's one thing, but at least tell us what they are."

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."


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
from a former Comcast Employee
Subject: comcast employee

I, according to comcast, am still an employee on administrative leave with pay, we with an IQ above 10 know this means till we can print your final check.

You have probably seen I have responded to some of the idiots that have attacked you. They really do brainwash the empployees but the most important thing, is they intimidate them. Those employees who are defending comcast to you in a public forum could get fired just for defending them if you can believe that LOL!

I was fired because i believe customers complaints to much. Comcast motto (this is an undeclared motto it is a motto only taught to employees) Customer is always lying and trying to get something for free. When in fact it is actually Comcast that is trying to get money for nothing. when a persons service has not been working properly, we don't offer a credit unless they ask! Comcast has no problem taking your money, if you are willing to pay it, even when service doesn't work.

Here is a story that will make you laugh your as off. Dec 14th we had one of the worst wind and rain storms ever in washington sate seattle area. over 1,000,000 people without power, cable, and phone. we were not allowed to go fix cable lines until power put theres up first. we sent out a press release saying all installs and disconnects were put on hold until every comcast customer was restored. So a lady calls in and says, my cable and power is down a tree fell on my roof and knockedthe cables down. we told her we could not come fix her cable line till her power lines were fixed. she understood. well she was unaware and the comcast employee did not tell her she was over due on her bill. well when an account hits 82 days past due you are interupted in service. if it goes 92 days you are diconnected from the pole. well on the 16th r 17th of dec she became 92 days. and all those techs that were supposed to be restoring services, one of them didn't get the memo the sent a tech out to disconnect her even though she had no service any way and still no electricity. alot of people were without both for 2 weeks. so he went out the lady saw him climbing the pole and said, you should stay away from there they haven't fixed my power yet. the guy told the lady to mind her business he is going to shut her cable off as he was ordered to. He hooked or bumped something caused a power surge to go into the ladys house it blew up her microwave, and caught her refridgerator on fire and he got zapped! All over comcast greed. If they had been doing what they told the press they were doing restoring outages with every available man this would not have happened.

so anyway, I am not sure what the band limit is but I also know that their "unlimited Long Distance" is not unlimited either. I work in collections and we were calling people all the time telling them to lower usage or we would have to charge them business rates? It just doesn't make sense. If they cal another country if they get say 150.00 in long distance say in a 2 week period they shut them off till they pay it b4 they turn long distance back on. no matter how long customer is with us.
Posted by C-LEVELTECH (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
comcast complaint line bandwidth
Comcast customer security assurance can be reached at 856-317-7272 for any abuse issues
such as excessive bandwidth or any complaints with the service! Its Comcastic!
Posted by POTBELLY5 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I jettisoned Time Warner a few years ago after constant billing errors, so I'm not surprised that the cable companies are pulling some underhanded tactics. Apparently, their efforts to charge customers for internet phone calls has taken a different direction. I'm using DSL and happy with it.
Posted by Technogoddess (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
what happend to unlimited usage?
Posted by jbuffet735 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I had a quick comcast related question to slide by you folks. I am recently moved to the ATL, GA area and We all use comcast for phone, tv, and highspeed internet. My uncle signed up for it cause gee for that money how could it NOT be a chance of a lifetime ??? rofl. Well they have been having connection issues that i beleive stem from their 2 year old POS Modem Comcast gave em.

Comcast has been here twice before for the same reason... of course for the time they stayed everything went ok with the net. ( Although this 6gig beastly speed was rather absent but my aunt and uncle just wanted their TV back at that point >.< )

So here is my question /' predicament. How should I go about getting the issue FIXED and like NOW lol. I took a couple networking classes in college so i am not *quite* naive enough to have them tell me to hold the reset button down and maybe if everything gets *really* bad... Reboot the system !!!

All I did was run several Microsoft Network Monitor Tests for each system and save the results. My last course of action is to just hand them the papers and let the bickering begin...

**However** if any of you folks have any input on how we might get the issue resolved with me winning and no fighting / phone calling / e-mailing / faxing / horseback riding involved, gimme a holler I would really appreciate it.

Thanks for your time guys and if you feel like shedding some tears read

That little piece of utter treachery...

Advice plz lol i don't wanna tackle em when they walk in the door >.<
Posted by 007cecil (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
SCREW Comcast they sold me on this super face download speed they said yea we will set you up with the fastest download speed 50MB a sec well i paid alot for it like 175.00 a month. I hit 30 gigs in downloads in 1week becuase i could download that fast, then i get a call there shuttting me down. i told them i download a lot and they said well we have the servcie for you and now they want me to pay for the next 6 months when i dont have service. Im not paying them a cent i got DSL its pretty fast and i can download all day and all night. U SUCK comcast
Posted by stillapaco (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It is better to have caps for many reasons:

1) we can compare isps and prices
2) we don't have to pay for network abusers
3) we can use to the brim what our limit is without bad feeling on both sides company and us.

Unlimited deals always have hidden limits. You can give unlimited options in a restaurant as people will have to stop when they cant eat no more, but with a network, the more unlimited you give the more the usage expands to occupy all available bandwidth and time. When 6% of users use 78% of the total bandwidth available the 94% rest become the suckers who pay for these 6% abusers.
Posted by dd64sg (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The 6% of us that you 94% are paying for would like to say thanks for putting up with us.

I have no doubt that my family is in at least the top 10% for the metro Atlanta area. Hell, we've got 6 people living in the house full time, three of which regularly download a lot of stuff, and two of us play online games (WoW, STO). Also, I have Xbox Live on my 360.

Right now the cap, from what I have found talking to friends and searching the web, is 250GB/month. And to be honest, it would take a lot to reach that cap - that's a couple DVD's a day worth of downloads. But for those who have large households, it poses a bit of a problem.

Not only that, I'm fairly sure that prior to even hitting the cap, they will start to throttle your connection. I used to get a download speed of 600-700KBps with no problem, but these days I am lucky to see 400. I know my family hasn't upped their usage. As someone who works in WiFi tech support (don't worry - not for Comcast), I know it's not the router. It's either the modem, the line... or some tech in a Comcast call center imposing restrictions because we're a burden on the network.

It wouldn't be so bad if they were up front with customers about these things. Hell, I'd even pay a bit more for a higher cap, so long as I don't get throttled. Trouble is, Comcast would rather scare away a few customers than use its money to upgrade their networks to handle this kind of traffic. I'm going to be using AT&T U-verse soon, maybe they'll be better.
Posted by Ehlmaris (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Rationing of internet access is no different from rationing of fuel, electricity, water and above all, food which the people of the developing nations accept as a part of life.
Posted by Deepankasr (1 comment )
Link Flag
Dang that sucks my household BW usage is around 40 gigs a day most in part from my personal usage around 30-35gb of it. If my download speeds was stuck in the 600-700 kbs range instead of my 4,500-6,500kbs it would be much less lol.
Posted by Drew-84 (1 comment )
Link Flag
I was just told last night by Clear Wire that we are using our internet too much so they are effectively cutting us off during peak hours, such as around the 8pm hour, when our connection slows down so much that we can't load anything and pages just time out due to such long load times. This is super frustrating because I am a full time online student and I do most of my studying after 8pm when my kids are in bed. All of our kids also use the internet for homework and for recreation as well. During the day I run a home business that requires an internet connection as well. We have an Xbox live that we can stream movies through from NetFlix as well, so I have no doubts our usage is high, but this is ridiculous to be told that you are being punished for needing the internet more than others. Everyone has different needs and instead of cutting people off, maybe these companies should think about instituting tiers for usage and charge people based off of those tiers so that people aren't being cut off and having their lives turned upside down because of it.

I know this article states that phone providers are not instituting limits, but Clear Wire certainly has, though they didn't bother with the courtesy of a letter as Comcast did, they just cut us off in the evenings with no warning.
Posted by nrroberts (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.