Respectful Insolence

Comcast: Cap bandwith?

A while back I complained about an installation misadventure I had when I got Comcast service hooked up to my new abode. Since the misadventure was corrected, things have been generally OK, except that for a while Comcast’s digital voice phone service produced an annoying buzz for a couple of weeks that made it almost unusable and that no amount of rebooting the modem would fix. Just as I was about to call customer service, the buzz spontaneously disappeared, and since then things have been more or less acceptable. In my area, at least, as far as I can tell BitTorrent traffic hasn’t been affected. I still get my fix of British TV shows, and download speed appears just as good as they were with my old cable company.

Thus it was with interest that I read this:

Comcast is evaluating a capping system that it hopes will pay for the cost of very heavy users without affecting most reasonable use, according to a tip sent to BBR. In the proposed plan, the provider would implement a clear 250GB monthly data transfer cap and charge users $15 extra per month for every 10GB increment past the limit. The effort would target the top 0.1 percent of users, or about 14,000 subscribers, who download well in excess of others but would still provide enough bandwidth for frequent use, such as video downloads.

It’s about time.


I don’t know how it all evolved that the main model for Internet service is a flat rate for unlimited usage. It’s a fine model for heavy users but not so fine for everyone else. Heck, even at my worst, I doubt I ever approach 25 GB of bandwidth used in a month, and I do a lot of surfing, blogging, online video watching, and some BitTorrent; so a 250 GB cap is incredibly generous. To me, a graduated, tiered fee system based on bandwidth makes a lot of sense, particularly if Comcast actually does do away with network traffic “shaping” and upgrades its systems so that there is sufficient bandwidth. That’s the rub. Charging more for heavy users is reasonable if this doesn’t just turn into another profit center and the rates for everyone else are kept reasonable. Also, given the increasing ubiquitousness of online video downloads, more and more people will be approaching 250 GB per month of traffic.

After reading the story, though, I’m still trying to figure out how that 0.1% of users can reach 250 GB of traffic. That’s a mind-boggling amount, something like a complete digital movie per day. What do they do? Leave BitTorrent going continuously all month?

Comments

  1. #1 George Smiley
    May 11, 2008

    Yeah, damn right, ’cause, like, Comcast are so going to pass the savings onto you, Orac.

  2. #2 FullFrontal
    May 11, 2008

    Yikes! I’m with GS on this one Orac. You might see better rates for a while but I’m guessing you’ll not benefit from this for long. Hope I’m wrong.

  3. #3 Confused
    May 11, 2008

    What do they do? Leave BitTorrent going continuously all month?

    In a word, yes. That and the fact that (certainly in the UK), households of four or more students often share one connection, are more likely to be geeky than the general population (and hence are likely to leave their computers running 24/7), and are a lot more likely than usual to engage in music, video and gaming piracy.

    I can think of at least three student households I knew as an undergrad who would easily have reached 100Gb in a month, and that was four years ago – the increased bandwidth (and increased bitrate on shared media files) in the interim would easily push them up to 250 these days.

    I’m all in favour of capping internet usage – it’s pretty commonplace in the UK – as long as there are clear and easy-to-use tools to check your “balance”. Most of the places I know about that have this kind of system, than kind of monitoring system isn’t in place, and I know people (families this time, who would happily curtail internet access if they knew they were getting close to their limit) who have been badly stung when the bill came in.

  4. #4 spudbeach
    May 11, 2008

    To quote: “I don’t know how it all evolved that the main model for Internet service is a flat rate for unlimited usage.”

    Let’s think this through: way back when, in the 70’s, the first dial-up services (Compuserve) were set up to charge by the hour. The next generation or providers, through the 80’s and early 90’s, also were set up to charge by the hour. (Who can forget the AOL mailers offering 750 free hours over a month, even though there are only 744 hours in a month?) It was to beat these providers that the next generation of ISP’s started offering unlimited connection for a set monthly fee. At time, the amount of bandwidth used was a minor part of the cost of providing the service (how much can it cost at 28.8?). The DSL and cable providers stood on top of the dial up ISP’s, and so kept the same unlimited usage, unlimited time pricing.

    Isn’t evolution wonderful? It explains so much.

    Does another pricing plan make sense? Perhaps — it depends on its fitness in attracting buyers and/or sellers. With effective monopolies (or duopolies) for high speed internet, the customers might just be screwed.

  5. #5 Kristjan Wager
    May 11, 2008

    I hope that people don’t listen to online radio too much though – it might not take up much bandwidth, but it does so continuously. Combine it with other usage (such as torrents or online gaming) and it’ll add up real fast.

    Also, some of us uses our internet for professional purposes – and going through a VPN adds quite an overhead on the internet traffic.

    Still, 250GB does seem like rather a lot, and would mostly be cause by illegal activities, such as file sharing.

  6. #6 crf
    May 11, 2008

    It is likely mostly uploads. If you have a fast upload connection, people, using bittorrent, will download from you. So it is easy to get 250 GB of traffic per month. Also uploads and downloads are not equally costly to your ISP, so ISPs especially like to limit uploads.

    I agree that it is better to charge by usage: you get so many GB/month of both uploads and downloads, with an extra charge per GB after that. Then it is easy to monitor your connection so you don’t go over the limit, and it is clear what the limit is. Degrading traffic, or even just snooping its contents, is unfair, and I hope it will soon be illegal.

  7. #7 wackyvorlon
    May 11, 2008

    A couple points:

    @Kristian Wager:

    Not all file sharing is illegal. For one thing, transferring music/videos that are copyrighted is legal in Canada. Also, not all files being transferred are works for which permission has not been granted. There are many public domain works, and software like Ubuntu, etc., that is transferred legally.

    The problem with the bandwidth cap, is that this extra money will not go into network upgrades. If they just put it in the profit column, they get to make more money and keep the same number of customers. I’m afraid tiered pricing doesn’t work as well as one would expect.

  8. #8 ScottN
    May 11, 2008

    IIRC, here in Seattle back in the ’90s there was a “broadband” ISP called “NWLink.com” that provided an always-on connection, and that they did have a tiered pricing model based upon the amount of data transferred. The bandwidth wasn’t anything like what’s available now, of course – I think it was ISDN based – and I don’t think the top tier was much above a few GB.

  9. #9 Kimi A
    May 11, 2008

    I’ll have to side with the naysayers on this one. First off, to me this seems like the first step towards gagging the internet for good. Sure, 250GB is a lot, but given the ever expanding services available and the fact that the size of files is growing steadily, that 250GB might seem awfully small in a year or two. And I think that is exactly what the ISPs are counting on.

    Secondly, the cap would all but guarantee that ISPs wouldn’t have to build new capacity. Think about it: do you really believe that 0.1% of all users could actually be responsible for your lagging connection? I seriously doubt it. I’ve had nothing but bad experiences with these companies, and I see absolutely no reason to trust them on this one either.

  10. #10 sng
    May 11, 2008

    Not sure I’m close to 250GB but between torrents, passing stuff to friends, VOIP, grabbing the OpenBSD source tree on occasion and other stuff the idea of bandwidth limits makes me very nervous. I’m hoping they get slapped down and but hard on this.

  11. #11 Father Ted
    May 11, 2008

    where are you getting your torrented British TV shows ?
    Cup of tea?
    go-oaaaan.

  12. #12 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    May 11, 2008

    Yeah I think this just opens the door for further regulation and caps. No thanks. I have a feeling that Comacast is already putting the breaks on some usage.

  13. #13 Knight of L-sama
    May 11, 2008

    Even if you do get a tiered system, consider yourself lucky. Such things are par for the course here in Australia and the limit is 80GB per month for our provider’s maximum plan. 250GB a month would still seem incredibly generous, though some of that would probably have something to do with connection speeds (large country in terms of area plus small population equals very large per person infrastructure costs).

  14. #14 Eric
    May 11, 2008

    Considering they already call your home and inform you that, if you continue to be in the “Top .1%” they will shut off your internet (personal experience), I very much doubt this will fix much of anything.

    Comcast is welcome to charge tiered rates when I get consistently high speed internet from my single, moderate use connection, and something resembling customer service.

  15. #15 Melissa G
    May 11, 2008

    Argh!!!! Did you see this? WIRED online apparently pulled this off the AP wire, and the AP reporter presents the case for anti-vaxers quite credulously.

    http://news.wired.com/dynamic/stories/A/AUTISM_COURT_CASE?SITE=WIRE&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

  16. #16 Paul Hutchinson
    May 11, 2008

    IMHO, a big part of their plan is to stop the migration away from traditional cable delivery of video before it gets too popular.

    NetFlix, Apple and others are pushing to have movies rented via download and when feasible to offer HD movies for download.

    A standard definition movie on DVD is about 8GB. A 250GB cap would give you about 1 movie per day. This doesn’t interfere badly with the current SD movie download plans for most people.

    But, HD movies are about 6 times larger so, you’d only get a bit more than one per week at 250GB/Month.

    A Comcast limit of 250GB makes the traditional cable based movie delivery option more attractive than downloading for HD movies. With a surcharge of $15/month for each extra 10GB, that comes out to over $50 for each extra HD movie you download per month. Hmm, on demand HD movies are much less than that in price.

  17. #17 Brendan S
    May 11, 2008

    Comcast is already traffic shaping…

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080213/133855251.shtml

    I don’t see why they need to throttle BitTorrent AND cap your transfer. Besides, I think this leads us to an unfortunate slipepry slope. If 250gb this year, why not 100 the next? THen 50..? Cause I assure you some small-minded marketing drone will point out they can make more money this way, and that will be that.

    Until Verizon or ATT puts them out of business by running fib-Op to every household…

  18. #18 Marcus Ranum
    May 11, 2008

    Meanwhile, those of us who live out in the boonies are still stuck on dial-up. My data transfers, on a typical day, are under 20Mb each way. Long Live Verizon!

  19. #19 Kassiane
    May 12, 2008

    I don’t like comcast doing this, mainly because I live in an exceptionally geeky area (seattle area) and they have a near monopoly developing here anyway. If they choose to change their policy as the internets keep expanding, people here will be SOL. In theory it sounds reasonable, but the combination of no competition and caps (and CRAPPY SERVICE, GAH!) just screams disaster.

  20. #20 Nomen Nescio
    May 12, 2008

    I don’t know how it all evolved that the main model for Internet service is a flat rate for unlimited usage.

    but that’s not how internet service is usually sold at all. what you’re supposed to be paying a flat rate for is a fixed bandwidth, not “unlimited usage”, which latter would require unlimited bandwidth to realize.

    Comcast is proposing to sell you X bits/second bandwidth, then charge you extra if you actually use it all (or some figure of “close enough to all”) on a continuous basis, as figured monthly. of course, what that means is simply that they’ll actually only be providing Y (for some Y

    or, from Comcast's point of view --- they provisioned for fewer customers than they sold to, coldly calculating that the average customer wouldn't use the full bandwidth they paid for, so they could oversubscribe their total bandwidth. now some customers actually do want to use their full pipeline, and Comcast’s oversubscribing is hurting their glutes, so they’re trying to pass the pain on down to you.

    waaa-aay back in the dark ages, Ma Bell actually spent serious mathemathical effort figuring out how far it was safe to oversubscribe a telephone switch, or a set of telephone circuits. switches seldom jammed, because their calculations were by and large right, or a bit on the conservative side. somewhat more recently, cell phone operators were not so careful or conservative when designing cell towers, and oversubscribed them more. the cell phone system routinely crashes under heavy load, such as when a disaster strikes. then came Comcast, and charged you extra for their carelessness… maybe it was “about time”, at that…

  21. #21 Interrobang
    May 12, 2008

    from Comcast’s point of view — they provisioned for fewer customers than they sold to

    In other words, they made a tactical business error and are expecting you, the customer, to pay for it. Mm, mm, smell that “privatise the benefits, socialise the risks” mentality…

  22. #22 Paul Hutchinson
    May 12, 2008

    To put some numbers to Nomen Nescio’s comment.

    250 GB/month * 1000 = 250,000 MB/month

    250,000 MB/month * 8 = 2,000,000 Mb/month

    2,000,000 Mb/month / 2592000 seconds/month

    = 0.77 Mb/second

    So Comcast sold people X Mb/s and now they want to limit it to 0.77 Mb/s because they can’t actually provide what was promised. I have a hard time feeling any sympathy for Comcast. Of course Comcast’s service agreement will have weasel language saying that the bandwidth they promised isn’t really a promise.

    I wish I could drop my honesty and sell products where I have no intention of providing more than 1/4th what I promised my customers. When I promise a customer X, I deliver X at a minimum or I offer to refund all their money. I guess that’s a good part of the reason why I’m not getting rich off my customers.

    Dare I say it, Comcast is admitting they have sold their customers Engineering Woo.

  23. #23 Nomen Nescio
    May 12, 2008

    argh, i knew i should’ve checked my posting. here, let’s see if the fix’ll work:

    [...] they’ll actually only be providing Y (for some Y less than X) bits per second, if you want to use it continuously throughout each month, and hit you with surcharges if you want to sustain any bit rate between Y and the bandwidth you thought you were actually paying for.

    or something like that; i was an idiot who didn’t preview, and by now have forgotten the exact wording i used.

  24. #24 Coin
    May 12, 2008

    Well, I’ve been resisting switching to Verizon for my internet for as long as I could. Looks like I’m finally going to have to give in though…

  25. #25 jayh
    May 12, 2008

    looks bad.

    First they offer you up to 250G for ~35, then charge 15!!! for each 10G over???? Not only disproportionate but since you are apparently NOT notified when you hit the limit (till billing time) you can run up a really big bill, really fast. It looks like they’re looking to ENTRAP users.

    Secondly, how would you challenge such a bill? You can’t go back and check like you could with phone calls.

    If it were REALLY ONLY 0.1%, then assuming those evil users take triple the amount, say 750G then this would lower potental traffic by .003%, HARDLY A NETWORK SAVING AMOUNT. 250*99.99/(259.99+750*.001).

    This is crap. Looking for another revenue stream as their claims of network capacity are obviously untrue.

  26. #26 Ginger Yellow
    May 12, 2008

    As Confused says, this model is standard in the UK and with much lower caps. Typically you get a 20GB-50GB per month limit and are charged about £1 a GB for everything over that. Expect to see much more of this as US content companies adapt to the internet and start providing services like the iPlayer. If Hulu takes off in a similar way and is given as much content, then you can bet that the vast majority of ISPs in the US will be capping usage.

    “Secondly, how would you challenge such a bill? You can’t go back and check like you could with phone calls.”

    Why not? There are dozens of traffic monitoring applications available.

  27. #27 Nomen Nescio
    May 12, 2008

    Ginger, this is one of the (relatively few) things Europe has which i really, really hope the USA does not import. European telcos used to charge by the minute for local calls, too; do they still do that? us yanks might put up with that for our cellphones — might, i say — but most of the cellular companies here still try to give us outs with cheaper in-network calling and selected numbers free.

    (really, it’s a monumentally bad way to charge for internet service anyway. packet-switched networks are not that closely analogous to parcel post. ethernet frames do not have mass nor bulk, so transferring more of them doesn’t cost extra; transferring more of them per unit time is the costly bit.)

  28. #28 Ginger Yellow
    May 12, 2008

    I couldn’t tell you about local calls – I don’t use my landline for anything but the internet. Seriously, though, 250GB is not exactly a tight restriction, and I can assure you that this model will be crossing the Atlantic soon. The ISPs over here, who already cap usage, are stamping their feet about the iPlayer and that’s only one service. If the US TV companies ever pull their heads out of the sand then US ISPs will all be scrambling to change their fee structures.

  29. #29 Jolly Bloger
    May 12, 2008

    Heh, I and many like me do in fact leave BitTorrent (or reasonable facsimile) on all month. A movie (or two) a day, maybe a season of a TV show each week, software and video games, of course music, other audio such as audio books, podcasts, radio shows, etc. Don’t forget we upload approximately as much as we download, as is the nature of BitTorrent, so double all that. Then there’s direct sharing and transferring between friends over IM programs, which of course brings up IM itself including live audio and video chat. Don’t forget a few hours of World of Warcraft each night either. Add to that normal surfing, streaming youtube videos, and oh yeah, copious amounts of porn. 250Gb in a month isn’t that hard to achieve for a truly connected individual.
    :)

  30. #30 Jolly Bloger
    May 12, 2008

    Oh, I completely forgot about those with no TV service at all, who download every show they watch. Imagine every half hour of television you watch translated into about 300Mb.

    Also, I’ve got two roommates who use about as much bandwidth as I do, so basically triple everything I listed before.

  31. #31 ColinB
    May 12, 2008

    250Gb!! Count yourselves lucky – here in Ottawa Rogers is going to cap us at 60Gb! :-(

    http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2008/05/07/tech-comcast-downloads.html

  32. #32 The Integral
    May 12, 2008

    call me stupid, but what the hell is bandwidth?

    technology comes with so many freaking new words to memorise…….is bandwidth like energy or computer internet memory taken up while downloading or uploading stuff?

    maybe it’s being exhausted from moving, RespectfulInsolenceWithdrawal (haven’t been able to read you for past three days, Orac, because of moving. discontinued internet connection in apartment and just now came home…..well, yesterday…..not even 24hrs ago.)

  33. #33 Nomen Nescio
    May 12, 2008

    bandwidth is a kind of speed measurement — amount of digital information transferred (across some communications channel, like your broadband connection) per some unit of time, usually (a multiple of) bits per second.

    increasing the bandwidth of a channel usually means going to better technology in the equipment on one or both endpoints of the channel, which can be expensive. or it can mean your service provider flipping a setting in your modem after you pay them $BIGNUM amount for the privilege, depending.

  34. #34 George
    May 13, 2008

    Demand based tiers for pricing is a good thing for the bottom 50% users and a more costly thing for the upper 50% users. But it should provide also provide a throttle on unneeded (that someone won’t pay extra for) use to provide some efficiency.

  35. #35 Jim Lippard
    May 13, 2008

    It makes perfect sense to me to have tiered pricing based upon paying for what you use, and charging the heaviest users more.

    And it’s not a question of Comcast “passing on the savings,” as the first commenter put it. The way the consumer ISP business model works is that they all oversubscribe (their upstream bandwidth can’t support all of their users going all-out at all times) in order to be able to afford to deploy infrastructure at all, and add capacity periodically as needed (hopefully staying ahead of overall usage). If the business model were changed to a non-oversubscription model, costs would have to go up dramatically. Interrobang’s claim that Comcast “made a tactical business error” is ignorant–*all* Internet providers do this, out of competitive necessity.

    If you don’t have tiered prices based on usage, then your low-bandwidth users subsidize your high-bandwidth users. There’s no way around it.

  36. #36 Jim Lippard
    May 13, 2008

    kimi: “the cap would all but guarantee that ISPs wouldn’t have to build new capacity. Think about it: do you really believe that 0.1% of all users could actually be responsible for your lagging connection? I seriously doubt it. I’ve had nothing but bad experiences with these companies, and I see absolutely no reason to trust them on this one either.”

    The cap will not guarantee that there is never a need to build new capacity. The number of Internet users is continuing to go up, as is the average amount of bandwidth used by each user. The cap will only enable more efficient use of the bandwidth across the set of current users and reduce the rate at which capital spending on upgrades will have to occur.

    As for whether a tiny percentage of users could be responsible for the bulk of the usage, I have no doubt. That held true in the days of dialup and it holds true in the Internet backbone world today as well. (I work for an Internet backbone provider that includes multiple cable and DSL providers around the world as customers.)

  37. #37 Dr. T
    May 13, 2008

    That’s a mind-boggling amount, something like a complete digital movie per day. What do they do? Leave BitTorrent going continuously all month?

    Yes. It is easy to use BitTorrent clients to download four or more large files simultaneously. Each time a download is completed, another torrent file can be added to the queue. With a high speed connection, one can easily download 5 GB per hour or 120 GB per day.

  38. #38 Grimalkin
    May 14, 2008

    Our company is doing the same thing. Our limit for the price we’ve been paying too low for us, so we will be forced to upgrade. We watch a couple movies a week and play games online. In other words, regular users will still be paying as much as before, and people like us will have to start paying more. As the first commenter says, all savings are pocketed, not passed on to the consumers.

  39. #39 Hyperion
    May 15, 2008

    Comments on “how many GB can you go through in a month” ignore an important point:

    250GB/month seems like a lot right now. I have two hard drives in my computer of that size. But in 2 years? 5 years? A computer nowadays typically has as much or more RAM than a computer 10 years ago had in HD space.

    Implementing a cap system essentially amounts to creating an artificial standard of what the current “maximum” ought to be, and even placing a disincentive upon increasing that. If fewer customers wish to utilize that amount of bandwidth, there is less demand from customers for various internet companies to provide content that would use that level of bandwidth, stifling growth. This further creates a disincentive, or at least removes incentives, for adding network infrastructure necessary to support greater bandwidth, since adding more bandwidth no longer gains extra customers (any gain in premium charges is likely to be offset by a death of customers willing to pay a premium price for higher bandwidth that content providers don’t bother to support because of the drop off in demand).

    I understand Comcast’s desire to lower bandwidth usage, but demands for greater bandwidth (or greater storage or faster processing or any other computational need) have historically driven innovation that has led to many great advances. Comcast risks hurting more than just their customers with this plan.

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