In a move aimed at reining in “bandwidth hogs,” Comcast Corp. has begun enforcing a cap on the amount of data its customers can download from the Internet.
The move by the nation’s largest cable company puts pressure on federal policymakers to clarify net neutrality rules requiring all Web traffic to be treated equally.
The controversial data-capping program, which Comcast announced on August 28, was implemented on October 1. On September 4, less than a week after unveiling the policy, Comcast sued the Federal Communications Commission, challenging the regulator’s authority to impose sanctions for violating government net neutrality rules.
Pro-net neutrality groups and federal regulators slammed Comcast’s decision.
“Given Comcast’s past failure to disclose its network management practices to its customers, it is important Comcast respond to the many still-unanswered questions about its new management techniques,” said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in a September 5 statement.
The Open Internet Coalition, a pro-network neutrality group, said Comcast’s lawsuit should spur Congress to pass legislation making net neutrality principles fully enforceable by federal regulators.
With Internet traffic surging, major U.S. carriers are exploring caps as a way to manage network traffic. Cable Internet providers in particular have long complained a handful of abusive users bog down their networks.
Customer Suspensions Possible
Under Comcast’s revised Acceptable Use Policy, customers who exceed 250 gigabytes per month per account can expect a call from the cable giant’s customer service. A second offense within six months would lead to suspension of service for a year.
Comcast says the data cap will affect less than 1 percent of its residential customers. According to a Comcast statement, the average residential user downloads between 2 gigabytes and 3 gigabytes of data per month.
The company says a customer would have to send 50 million e-mails (at 0.05 KB apiece), download 62,500 songs (at 4 MB per song), download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 GB per movie), or upload 25,000 high-resolution pictures (at 10 MB per photo) in a 30-day span before exceeding the cap.
Although Comcast is the first Internet service provider to put a data cap in place, other companies have been exploring similar measures for months. In June, Time Warner Cable Inc. began testing a metered billing system that would charge customers for usage over a monthly quota. AT&T, the nation’s largest Internet provider, is also considering metered billing.
Limits Called Too Small
Comcast’s 250 GB quota is “a generous cap, particularly when compared to the 5 to 40 gigabyte caps being considered by companies like Time Warner Cable and Frontier,” said Karl Bode of DSLReports.com. “It’s good that customers will no longer have to guess how much usage constitutes gluttony.”
But critics of the new policy say Comcast’s move not only will hurt consumers in the long run but also will undermine innovation by creating different levels of high-speed service.
“Tiered broadband is a terrible idea that will bring the innovation inspired by flat-rate broadband to a screeching halt,” said Malik Om of GigaOM.com. “This is to stymie [online video] services like Hulu, NetFlix, and Amazon On-Demand.”
Om points out that with high-definition video downloads and online back-up services becoming more popular, the 250 GB cap could look very small very soon.
“With HD, each roughly two-hour-long movie is going to consume about 8 GB, while live sports events, etc., when watched in higher quality, can take up some 13 GB,” Om noted. “Remember, we share our Internet connections with multiple people in a household. So before you know it, that 250 GB isn’t enough.”
Congress Considering Mandates
Comcast’s move toward data-capping follows a rebuke from the federal government for setting caps without disclosing them to the public. FCC ruled on August 1 Comcast violated federal net neutrality guidelines by slowing traffic on peer-to-peer networks.
Comcast officials deny the new data-capping policy is related to FCC’s decision, saying the timing of the announcement less than 30 days later was purely coincidental.
Congress is still considering H.R. 5353, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Charles Pickering (R-MS), would empower FCC to mandate a national broadband policy.
Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) writes from Rialto, California.