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Snouting for bandwidth

Our old non-friend Comcast has been under fire again, this time for turning off Internet access to users it deems to have used too much bandwidth. The kicker? Comcast won't tell those users how much is too much.

Of course, neither bandwidth caps nor secrecy over what constitutes heavy usage is anything new, at least in Britain. ntl brought in a 1Gb per day bandwidth cap as long ago as 2003. BT began capping users in 2004. And Virgin Media, which now owns ntl and apparently every other cable company in the UK, is doing it, too.

As for the secrecy, a few years ago when "unlimited" music download services were the big thing, it wasn't uncommon to hear heavy users complain that they'd been blocked for downloading so much that the service owner concluded they were sharing the account. (Or, maybe hoarding music to play later, I don't know.) That was frustrating enough, but the bigger complaint was that they could never find out how much was too much. They would, they said, play by the rules – if only someone would tell them what those rules were.

This is the game Comcast is now playing. It is actually disconnecting exceptionally heavy users – and then refusing to tell them what usage is safe. Internet service, as provided by Franz Kafka. The problem is that in a fair number of areas of the US consumers have no alternative if they want broadband. Comcast owns the cable market, and DSL provision is patchy. The UK is slightly better off: Virgin Media now owns the cable market, but DSL is widespread, and it's not only sold by BT directly but also by smaller third parties under a variety of arrangements with BT's wholesale department.

I am surprised to find I have some – not a lot, but some – sympathy with Comcast here. I do see that publishing the cap might lead to the entire industry competing on how much you can download a month – which might in turn lead to everyone posting the "unlimited" tag again and having to stick with it. On the other hand, as this Slashdot comment says, subscribers don't have any reliable way of seeing how much they actually are downloading. There is no way to compare your records with the company's equivalent to balancing your check book. But at least you can change banks if the bank keeps making mistakes or your account is being hacked. As already noted, this isn't so much of an option for Comcast subscribers.

This type of issue is resurfacing in the UK as a network neutrality dispute with the advent of the BBC's iPlayer. Several large ISPs want the BBC to pay for bandwidth costs, perhaps especially because its design makes it prospectively a bandwidth hog. It's an outrageous claim when you consider that both consumers and the BBC already pay for their bandwidth.

Except…we don't, quite. The fact is that the economics of ISPs have barely changed since they were all losing money a decade ago. In the early days of the UK online industry, when the men were men, the women were (mostly) men, and Demon was the top-dog ISP, ISPs could afford to offer unlimited use of their dial-up connections for one very simple reason. They knew that the phone bills would throw users offline: British users paid by the minute for local calls in those days. ISPs could, therefore, budget their modem racks and leased lines based on the realistic assessment that most of their users would be offline at any given time.

Cut to today. Sure, users are online all the time with broadband. But most of them go out to work (or, if they're businesses, go home at night), and heavy round-the-clock usage is rare. ISPs know this, and budget accordingly. Pipes from BT are expensive, and their size is, logically, enough, specified based on average use. There isn't a single ISP whose service wouldn't fall over if all its users saturated all their bandwidth 24/7. And at today's market rates, there isn't a single ISP who could afford to provide a service that wouldn't fall over under that level of usage. If an entire nation switches even a sizable minority of its viewing habits to the iPlayer ISPs could legitimately have a problem. Today's bandwidth hogs are a tiny percentage of Internet users, easily controlled. Tomorrow's could be all of us. Well, all of us and the FBI.

Still, there really has to be a middle ground. The best seems to be the ideas in the Slashdot posting linked about: subscribers should be able to monitor the usage on their accounts. Certainly, there are advantages to both sides in having flexible rules rather than rigid ones. But the ultimate sanction really can't be to cut subscribers off for a year, especially if they have no choice of supplier. If that's how Comcast wants to behave, it could at least support plans for municipal wireless. Let the burden of the most prolific users of the Internet, like those of health care, fall on the public purse. Why not?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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