Comcast and the amazing invisible bandwith barrier

By Martin Bosworth

If you’re a Comcast subscriber who likes to use your connection for downloading videos, playing games, or anything more intensive than surfing the Web and checking e-mail, watch out–your connection could get restricted or shut off without any notice.

My esteemed ConsumerAffairs.Com colleague Joseph Enoch has more:

The company has a bandwidth limitation that, if broken, can result in a 12-month suspension of service. The problem, according to customer complaints, is that the telecom giant refuses to reveal how much downloading is too much. This problem with Comcast actually goes back a couple of years–check out this CNet article from 2003, for instance, or this massive Broadband Reports discussion thread. The problem is not limited to Comcast either–Joe Enoch reported last year that Verizon Wireless enacted the same clampdown on its so-called “unlimited” wireless broadband service.

The reason is simple–cable and telecom companies don’t want to spend money on expanding broadband buildouts unless they’re to rich neighborhoods with a higher likelihood of paying top dollar for expensive services. Given that, it’s easier to enforce download and upload limitations and cut people off the network for hogging too much bandwith.

But as John Borland noted in the CNet article, no ISP wants to flat-out admit they cap bandwith usage, because that’s the kiss of marketing death. So you have these invisible “floating” caps that can strike without warning, even if the user wasn’t doing anything more intensive than uploading a video to YouTube. Thanks in no small part to Joe’s exposing the issue, Verizon has since explicitly admitted in its terms of service that anything higher than a measly 5GB will get you kicked off the network. I’d be amazed if anyone would want to use such a service unless it was corporate policy.

But this is another example of how the uncompetitive cable/telecom duopoly in this country enables such arbitrary business decisions. Overall broadband growth is on the decline in America, and much like credit card companies, the incumbent providers will unlock the higher speeds and offer more bells and whistles to retain customers or fight for restless subscribers to other services, rather than actually offer better terms of service or expand to underserved areas.

Incumbent cable and telecom companies never anticipated the explosive growth in user-generated content and file-sharing, and rather than gain new revenue streams and customers from building out more and faster connections, it’s easier for them to simply kick out people who have the temerity to use the Internet to its fullest–once their revenue goals are met, of course.

26 replies »

  1. I wonder how this would be different now had the FCC (a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T) actually enforced the Telecom Act according to its legislative intent.

    In any case, when I see these kinds of things it doesn’t convince me that these companies can be entrusted to act in the best interest of our society and economy.

    So yeah, let’s have a slice of that Net Neutrality, shall we….

  2. Traffic limits must be the new rage among internet providers. It’s worse on satellite internet according to this since they’re limiting it to 200MB/day.

  3. There are some alternatives available according to this article. The links in it point to locally-built high-speed internet and the world rankings (US is fifteenth behind everyone else that counts) and Cringely tells about the $200B wasted on telcos for broadband development.

  4. Sam, DomPierre,

    Correct on all counts. My obsessive focus on net neutrality and related broadband issues all stems from what is plainly monopolistic, anticompetitive behavior designed to keep us as passive consumers and prevent us from not only enjoying the benefits of real competition, but actively chokes our economic, political, and social development in the name of short-term quarterly profits.

    Needless to say, I take it serious. πŸ˜‰

  5. Thanks for bringing this issue to our attention, Martin. You made it easy to understand.

    Net neutrality, on the other hand, needs somebody to seriously dumb it down. I barely understand it. Most Internet users have never even heard of it, I’ll bet.

    All I know is one day, between the telecoms and governments, the Internet may one day become highly restricted. I would hate to have to look back at today — its comparative infancy — as the golden age of the Internet.

  6. Russ,

    Net Neutrality is very simple, really:

    You can look at any site you want right now. Big telecoms want you to pay extra to view sites they don’t approve of,and charge companies like Google more money to host their content.

    That’s a bad thing. πŸ˜‰

    It really is a simple issue, but it gets distorted by a lot of bullshit doublespeak and wonky techno talk that just alienates people.

    The Golden Age of the Internet ain’t over yet. πŸ™‚

  7. As someone who pays Comcast a ridiculous amount of money each month (I live in a “preferred” neighborhood so I should get their “best service,” right? ), I’d observe the following:

    1) the broadband service I get is unreliable – if they’re kicking people off for excessive use, I’m not seeing any benefit. I download less than 5GB (average) in a month. Sure, I might download more occasionally – my work as a professor sometimes calls for some downloading – but I get tired of lousy signal for what I pay;

    2) since I get a “bundled” service package, and since my cable TV service is as unreliable as my broadband, what the hell am I paying for, exactly? the privilege of having yet another shitty service provider tell me how I can use the service I pay for? (Admittedly, Comcast has recently take over my service area from the provider from hell, Adelphia – who left things in a mess.) But every 60 days my bill goes up and I get – the all quilting channel added to my cable “choices” and restrictions on my broadband use?

    On a positive note, all these people will die…no, wait, what I really wanted to say was (despite Sam’s snark at the FCC) at least some of the members of that group understand the problems and are trying to publicize them:

    See what Copps has to say….

  8. When you hear the phrase “net neutrality”, just think about free & open access to everyone that uses the internet with no censorship and no queue lines or tollbooths as the big telcos keep wanting to implement.

    The problem is with the monopolies / telcos, who seem to be mixed up on the concept of what customers are. They want the monthly payments by providing minimal service. A case of entitlements if there ever was one.

    We actually had it right before Carter broke up AT&T in the 70s. Phone bills were low and service was provided everywhere because they were regulated and actual oversight was provided.

    Today, in the internet age, there’s no requirement that high-speed internet service has to be provided to all rural areas, and in 2007, that is indeed true.

    In effect, the foxes are guarding the henhouse and no true competition to boot, maybe collusion though.

  9. My wife and I used to have Comcast but bundled our satellite TV with Qwest DSL to save lots of money, and we saw our download speeds improve dramatically after the switch (and after I figured out why I couldn’t get the wireless router to connect without dragging down the modem link too). I suspect the reason is that cable broadband is a shared transmission medium all the way from the house to the headend while DSL is a dedicated wire back to the DSL server.

    Comcast will get their $50/month somehow – if you bundle digital cable with broadband, it costs you roughly $50 per month, but if you get just broadband, it still costs you $50/month. Even with the taxes and fees, DSL bundled with DirecTV was a much better deal for us.

  10. Gee, it sounds like Comcast is trying to force the net neutrality issue. How much of this will content providers tolerate before they start trying to cut deals with ISPs? How much would YouTube, Netflix Online, Vongo, et al be willing to pony up to keep their services online?

    I just signed up for a trial of Vongo the other night and downloaded about 20 GB of movies the first night. Needless to say, if I had any bandwidth restrictions on my account, I wouldn’t consider signing up for such services.

  11. Hah, you think you got it bad. In South Africa such limits are legally enforced. I get 1 Gig per month or sporadic service. Thank-you.

  12. Think you’ve got fast broadband? Think again.

    Swede shows off 40 Gig broadband connection

    “. . . . Yes, that’s right – 40 Gigabits per second. According to the Local:
    Sigbritt will now be able to enjoy 1,500 high definition HDTV channels simultaneously. Or, if there is nothing worth watching there, she will be able to download a full high definition DVD in just two seconds . . . .

  13. I’ll let you call “heads” or “tails” on this one to see which of us gets to quiz Miss Teen South Carolina on the geography part of this. πŸ˜€

  14. Instead of suspending peoples’ accounts, these companies should charge an overage fee the way wireless companies do. In my idealized broadband world, the overage fees could be used to build more connections.

    I’m not in favor of surcharges and extra fees by any means, but just suspending people’s accounts WITHOUT WARNING is a really dumbass business practice. Never mind just plain dumb. Of course there’s usually no competition for customers – most areas have *one* cable co. and *one* dsl provider if they are lucky.

    I loathe the increasing rural/urban divide. Time Warner is THE broadband cable provider here and they will not build out to a rural area only 15 miles away. It seems they feel there aren’t enough people interested. I notice a trend in a lot of people’s spending priorities – they say they are ‘broke’ – behind on rent, mortgage, or are scrimping and saving in various ways, but they *MUST have their broadband and are willing to pay*. But the broadcos. don’t seem to notice this, or care.

  15. It’s funny and sad that once again, the Japanese studied our ideas and uber-improved upon them:
    Why Japan Is Eating America’s Lunch On Broadband

    Honestly I’m glad for them. They are actually doing what Republicans claim to do – open markets to competition.

    The “Ma Bell” deregulation from the 80’s was supposed to allow for competition. AT&T was split up but recoagulated (yeah, I’m taking liberty with big words) into a new more formidible entity. Other telcos and cable cos. swallow little ones and now we are back to being slobbered on by one or 2 megacompanies. This plays like a C rated alien monster movie.