Bandwidth cap - essential or anti-competitive?

Comcast has recently announced that, in order to preserve their network service, they are going to implement a bandwidth cap of 250GB per month. This, they say, won't affect but a single percent of their users. The first time you go over this limit in a given month, you get a warning. The second time, your service is cut.

So how necessary is this? If only a percent of their customers are using that much bandwidth, and if the vast majority of users are way under this limit (which they loudly claim repeatedly, in an attempt to allay most people's fears that they might be among those cut), how clogged can their series of tubes really be?

If that's not the real reason, what could it be? They aren't currently offering a way to get a bigger limit, even for more money (although if they were to do so, we could simply lump them in with cell phone providers who keep raising rates for text messaging packages that include fewer messages). If the network is not truly clogged, what could be the motivation?

A telling clue is in their response about "Comcast Digital Voice". This is their Voice-Over-IP telephone service. We subscribe to this because it is an alternative to Qwest, and we believe it is the lesser of two evils. (Actually the service was somewhat different, up until just a few months ago when everything was switched over to VOIP. Now a single cable modem provides our internet and phone lines.) Naturally, if internet usage is going to be capped, people were understandably concerned about their phone service, which is coming over the internet, using up valuable bytes. Their answer? "Comcast Digital Voice is a completely separate service and is not a factor." (source: CNET Q&A with Comcast)

Oh, ho. So, Comcast is able to route its VOIP traffic specially, whether on a slightly different signal or just somehow flagged. So, what about other VOIP services, like Vonage? Well, they are just using standard internet protocols, so naturally, they will be subject to the cap.

What about movies? Comcast has also said that movies & TV, including streaming on demand, will not be affected. Whether this is because it's not using IP or because its traffic is also "specially-marked", I'm not sure, but it's not particularly relevant. The fact is, to stream a Comcast movie with your cable box, you don't have to think about bandwidth restrictions or any crap like that. But if you want to stream videos over the internet using Netflix or even YouTube (let alone bittorrent or other ways of downloading full movies), well, the meter is running, buddy.

This fall, the Xbox 360 will be receiving a dashboard update that will enable streaming-on-demand via a Netflix account. I was very close to convincing myself that it might be time to subscribe to Netflix. Now, that draw is gone. How can I want to stream movies to my 360 when I know that it'll possibly end up threatening to cut off my internet?

250GB may be more than enough for casual use of even third-party videos and VOIP. But it's hard to say for sure. Comcast has no intentions of making a meter available so you can see where you are on the bandwidth use for the month, and that's just the way they like it. Because of the fear of a bandwidth cap, even if it is set high, people are going to fear going to their competition for movies and VOIP.

The way my network is set up, everything runs through one Linux box before hitting the internet. Fortunately, I was able to set up the extremely easy to use program vnstat, which monitors network throughput on the interface of your choice. I intend to monitor my usage for September, trying not to vary my usage from typical habits, to get some indication of how much I'm actually using. Only then will I really know if there is a problem.

I'm sure other people won't be so lucky.


The Smoke Detector Paradox

There are 24 hours in a day. The number of minutes in the day is equally divided among the 24 hours. However, despite this equal division of time, the battery in any given smoke detector will fail to the point where said detector begins emitting its warning chirp only during the nighttime hours, with a higher probability of occurrence during the "wee hours" between 2am and 4:30am — late enough to be deep asleep, too late to get back to sleep for any refreshing length of time, yet way too early to even consider just getting up for the day.

It happened again this weekend. At 4am Sunday morning, I hear my wife scolding my dog for climbing up on the comfy chair in the bedroom. What got him all riled up?


Oh, the smoke alarm. I get up and find the stepstool while my wife goes to the basement to retrieve a 9V battery. Replace the battery, put the smoke detector back up.


Wrong one. It wasn't the one that was installed with the house, but the one installed with the alarm system. The two are side-by-side, so it was an easy mistake — although if I had been more awake, I would've remembered that the alarm system had in fact been warning me that the fire alarm was reporting a low battery for a couple days. Oops.

Climb back up, take that smoke detector down. But it doesn't take a 9V battery; it takes two camera-style "123" batteries — not the kind you'd have sitting on-hand for an emergency change in the middle of the night.

So, I remove the batteries to at least silence the chirping — which immediately sets off the house alarm. My wife runs downstairs to deactivate the panel before the siren starts. Moments later (fortunately, before we are able to get back to sleep), we get a call from the alarm company to confirm the situation.

It took me 20 minutes to get back to sleep. I was lucky. My wife was up for over an hour.

I've complained about this paradox before, and the response I usually get is unsympathetic. "Well, you're supposed to change the batteries in all your smoke detectors twice a year anyway."

Except that would be overkill. Our smoke detectors don't run on batteries; they're connected to the house wiring, and the battery is used as a backup. As a result, the batteries often last a couple years or more. This one is a different case, as it was installed later and does run on batteries, but not your typical 9V, die-in-half-a-year variety. And at $10 a battery (and this thing takes two of them), you can bet I want to use them as long as they last rather than replace them on a premature schedule.

If I ever make a smoke detector, I will ensure that it obeys the following rules for when the battery is low:

  • Do not begin chirping if it is dark.
  • Wait until there has been light for at least two hours before chirping. (Sun comes up a lot earlier than I do in the summer.)
  • Once chirping has started, do not stop until battery is changed. (Annoying, but I'll concede for safety reasons not allowing someone to just deal with it during the day until they can sleep at night; what if they were out all day?)
  • If there has been no light for 10-12 hours, begin chirping. (In case it's not in range of visible light. Yes, there's a chance this could still go off at night.)

At most, this would delay the warning for half a day, which, considering for how long I've heard these things chirp, isn't that long. A little extra cost for the light sensor. Battery drain shouldn't be too bad, as it only has to sample light every half hour or hour or so, and only when it's about to reach low battery stage, and then only for the first half day at most. (And if, like mine, it's on house wiring anyway, that point's fairly moot.)

Perhaps I should patent this idea...


Not in MY lane!

Driving the kids to school yesterday, we were in the middle lane of a three-lane road (in our direction), behind what looked like one of those rented moving vans, except it lacked any markings whatsoever. Anyway, that was the approximate size and shape of this vehicle. Traffic was a little heavy, as the right lane was blocked due to some road work (morning rush hour being the ideal time to tear up a piece of road, naturally). Up ahead was an intersection with a double left turn. Since traffic in the left lane splits up into people going straight and two lanes of people turning left, the left lane has a tendency to empty a little more quickly. And, since the right lane was blocked off and people needed to merge, the middle and right lanes were moving much more slowly.

I'm usually one who just stays in his lane, because if I try to switch to a faster lane, invariably I end up reliving the opening scene to Office Space, where as soon as I switch lanes, I come to a complete stop as the lane I just left speeds up. And on the rare occasions when I do seem to gain ground, I notice that a car I passed up manages to catch up to me two lights later anyway. So why stress, right?

In this case, this truck in front of me decided he wanted to merge left. Possibly because that lane was moving faster, possibly just to make room for the people in the right lane to merge. Either way, he waited until the left lane traffic lightened a bit. As soon as there was an opening, he'd turn on his signal.

The instant that signal came on, the people in that left lane would hit the accelerator and close the gap, making sure they got across that two or three car lengths of empty space before that truck dared to get in front of them, and then slam on their brakes to narrowly avoid hitting the stopped car in front — but at least they prevented the unthinkable, someone merging into their lane.

I watched this happen two or three times. Different people each time, because it would actually put them in front of that truck, so the next time it was someone else coming from behind to claim the empty space as theirs.

And what did they gain? Despite being two or three cars ahead, traffic as a whole was still moving rather slowly. Whether you are behind a big truck or not, you're still not moving more than 5mph at best, and it's still three light cycles before you get through the intersection.


IM Convenience, USPS Prices

My cell phone carrier, T-Mobile, just raised their text messaging rates yet again. Once upon a time, when I first had their service, it was 10¢ per message sent or received, but the first 15 incoming messages were free. An unlimited plan was available for $5/month, but I would've needed to have 50 messages for that to be worth it. At some point, when I wasn't paying attention, they dropped the "first 15 incoming free", which thoroughly annoyed me, but again, I still was way below the threshold where the unlimited package would be worth it. They also raised their rates to 15¢ per message (again, sent or received), but my text volume still fell below the threshold to make any package deal worth it.

One charming feature that T-Mobile provides is the ability to send text messages to any phone by using an email address. Send an email to mobilenumber@sometmobiledomain.com, and presto, they get a text message. Well, of course, spammers eventually caught on to this, and we started getting spam. Since T-Mobile charges per message sent or received, that meant we were paying for spam. Words cannot express how angry this concept makes me. Fortunately, T-Mobile's web site provides a very easy way to turn off the option to receive text messages by email. Once I found it (which of course wasn't exactly straightforward, although I don't know it's fair to say it was "buried", either), the spam stopped.

Just this month, though, T-Mobile raised their rates yet again. Now, it's 20¢ to send or receive every text message. Since they charge on both sides of this equation, that means for every text message one T-Mobile customer sends to another, they rake in 40¢. For an instant message. Nearly the same price as a first-class US Postage stamp (currently 42¢).

Oh, and to make matters worse, their $5 plan is now no longer unlimited. I think it is something on the order of 500 messages, and unlimited plans are $10 or $15 per month.

The part that bugs me the most about this is how they charge to receive messages. If someone calls me, I can see who is calling (or maybe Caller ID is blocked and I can't, but that's not the point), and I can choose to accept the call or not, thereby choosing whether or not I am going to use air time to take the call. But if someone sends me a text message, I have no choice. That text message is automatically delivered and accepted, and I am charged, whether I wanted it or not. It means my cell phone bill can be (and is) charged based on actions completely out of my control.

T-Mobile is not alone in this practice. That doesn't absolve them of the fact that they chose to engage in this rip-off.

I imagine some day it might be convenient to just have a portable internet device. Something that just has a constant internet connection, on which I could run an instant messenger client with voice capabilities. (Perhaps like Skype, which can call phones as well with a purchased plan, but even MSN Messenger can do voice chat, which might suffice.) That way, I could have my data pipe, and I could choose whatever services I wanted at whatever cost I decided best fit my needs. (For instance, just having MSN Messenger would mean someone couldn't call me from a land line; could I live with that?) That way I wouldn't be locked into a cell phone provider who tries to find new ways to make me pay for things, such as charging me for services I can't refuse.


If you don't like my walking, stay off the crosswalk

Idiot driver of the day.

I was out walking today, as I'm trying to get into the habit so I get at least some exercise during the day. I come to a busy intersection, press the button for the crosswalk, and wait. The cross traffic gets a red light, and the left turn lights for the traffic running parallel to me light. The crosswalk light is of course still red, so I still wait. The left turn lights cycle off, and the straight lights go green, and the crosswalk also turns green. I start walking.

Because I'm on the left side of the intersection, the first half of my walk is in front of stopped cross traffic. I get past the halfway point, and this old white pickup truck has come from behind me to make a left turn. Note that I am still in the crosswalk, whose light had turned green (although started blinking red while I was crossing).

He pulls out and starts to make his turn, fortunately stopping just before he hits me. The guy leans out his window and starts yelling something at me. Since I'm listening to an audiobook, I don't know what he says, but I refuse to so much as acknoledge his presence. He's turning left, he must yield to oncoming traffic and most certainly pedestrians in the crosswalk.

Apparently my failure to beg his forgiveness for my existence made him mad, because then he laid on his horn until I had cleared out of his way. I didn't look at him or even alter my pace, but I was sorely tempted to stop and stand still.