2008
09.10

They’re Com-Cap-Stic!
You may have heard that, two Thursdays ago, Comcast announced a definite limit of how much data you could pull (and push) over their pipes: 250 GB per month. This policy will start on October 1st, though so far they have said that there won’t be any way to go onto their site and measure usage. Though I think the practice is outrageous, especially the "we won’t tell you how much you’ve used" part, I’ll keep cool-headed long enough to sit down and enumerate my rage, and other related-to-capping line items. This is also in response to the TWiT podcast that I love so dearly…

First off, you may have realized by now that high speed internet around here isn’t very competitive. Qwest has lower-end access starting at $40; Comcast has higher-end access starting at $55. That’s pretty much end-of-story. If there was true competition you could probably get free installation from Comcast for high-speed internet. As it stands, it is $49 for the installation, $3 a month (or around $60 out-of-pocket) for the modem, $40-$100 for a wireless router in addition to the monthly fees.

Second, if Comcast wants to have a set overage for people, why not go whole-hog and bill by the bit utility-style? Oh, I forgot, they aren’t regulated. If they did, a $20 service fee plus maybe ten cents per gigabyte would be standard fare, and I wouldn’t complain a bit. Speeds would be capped only by network congestion and technical impedance and the world would be a happy place. That isn’t happening yet. Neither is "committed-rate billing" where you are actually guaranteed X speed on your internet connection, at MINIMUM, for a specific price, with no bandwidth caps. Instead, Comcast and Qwest give you "up to" speeds which on Qwest can never be reached and on Comcast can usually be reached or exceeded, but are not by any stretch of the imagination guaranteed. But seriously, why does Comcast have to both limit my data transfer ability by speed AND by amount transferred? It’s the analog to setting a speed limit AND limiting how many miles you go on the road to 55 mph and 3,800 miles per month. Sure, most people won’t travel that much in a month, but heavy commuters, who spend forty-five minutes each way on the road, might bump up against the limit. Or, heaven forbid, you actually take a road trip!

Also, what’s with the “business class” baloney? A business cable connection generally costs more money for less speed than a residential connection (though sometimes you get more speed as well) so Comcast might stop pestering you about bandwidth usage. It also provides an excuse for them to say “you’re putting ads on your blog, which you’re editing over our connection; you need to upgrade to our twice-as-expensive business service”. Make a real distinction between the service levels quality-wise (definite, but higher, caps maybe, or the ability to host servers that a residential connection doesn’t have, or a static IP address) and maybe people will pay for business-class features. But, on the other hand, some businesses, whose data needs aren’t great, could probably survive on a residential connection. I’m serious when I say that I alone probably use more bandwidth per month than everyone on my former high school’s network, combined. Then again, I’m also paying more for my internet than they are for their slower business DSL connection. Though their connection…wait for it…isn’t capped!

Another solution to this dilemma of caps: run another wire, get another account. The problem is whether Comcast will even do that. Also, around here a business class connection can be had for $90 a month, less than the price of two residential connections on the lower tier. Plus, my apartment has a single cable jack, and I don’t think Comcast would be willing to put in another one without charging me an arm and a leg.

Also, what’s this I hear about Comcast not providing a bandwidth meter to their customers? I have a theory about that: they slapped the 250GB cap on service just to give people a high number, but didn’t actually change anything in their infrastructure. What they probably do is look for congested cable loops and then hone in per-user to see who is causing the problem. A 250GB user would average about 768k in downloads and uploads 24/7 so they could probably spot that person relatively easily and deal with them however they pleased. So you could get away with high bandwidth usage for awhile, until Comcast sees you. On the other hand, one warning and you’re barred from Comcast for a year. About that bandwidth meter, there are a few things you can do about the problem of Comcast not providing one. If you have a common wireless router, you can “flash” it relatively easily to the DD-WRT firmware (available at www.dd-wrt.com), which includes a bandwidth meter. If you don’t want to give up special router functionality (I just got a new router that I can hook up a hard disk to with the stock firmware, but can’t without much effort when using DD-WRT), you’ll need to download a utility onto your computer such as NetMeter. On the Mac, there is a built-in bandwidth meter, but it doesn’t discriminate between on- and off-network usage. I’m still looking for an option that’ll monitor everything correctly. Hopefully, Comcast will come out with one due to the uproar about them not doing so. Heck, most ISPs that are smaller than Comcast who limit traffic at least have a way you can check on it! Though I must say that the meter-less cap will have an impact on customers; they’ll be so afraid of the cap that they won’t use their internet connection as much as they are now, even with the reassurance that “average users” who are checking e-mail and a few websites each day only use 2-3 GB of data per month. Alarmism is good for network congestion, unfortunately.

Another thing: if Comcast makes the misstep of allowing some internet-based services (note that I said internet-based. More on that in a second) to skirt around their cap, they’ve just violated Net Neutrality principles, something that they just got in a bit of hot water about from the US government. That also means that, around here at least, you’re looking at between 20 and 25 cents per gigabyte, for EVERY gigabyte of data sent or received over the connection. In comparison, datacenter internet goes for as little as $5 per megabit, and that megabit over one month translates to 324 gigabytes each way. Educational networks cost even less per megabit. When everything is calculated out, Comcast’s internet costs 16 times per gigabyte what those data center network ports cost. That’s ridiculous.

One last item: when I was talking about on- and off-network bandwidth, I was mainly referencing Comcast’s "Digital Voice" service. While I detest the fact that the service runs around $40 per month, it does have a few advantages. First, traffic never leaves Comcast’s network, something that can’t be said of my own VoIP provider (which is one-thirtieth the cost, MagicJack). Second, you get battery backup for the service. But it is this first point that is important: by staying on-network, Comcast has a halfway-legiitimate reason not to charge for that traffic. Then again, VoIP isn’t exactly a traffic hog: 3500 minutes of talking is less than 4.75 GB of traffic. Still, it’s something to think about; more and more traffic may well make its way closer to network centers to get around caps, though as this becomes the case net neutrality is compromised in a big way, making the internet a series of fractured communities. In the immortal words of captioned kitties everywhere: DO NOT WANT.

In conclusion, Comcast’s cap is backwards now, and will become even more backwards when HD video over the internet becomes mainstream (it’s just getting started right now, and 125 hours of content would sink the cap on my connection without a second thought). Of course, it could be argued that Comcast is really only protecting their interests in cable TV, but that would seem even less nice, wouldn’t it? Please, please let the cap go away. Or at least give me a data transfer measurement tool.

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