2008-08-30

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.

1 comment:

SlapShotSal said...

I read this, and was thinking the same thing about competition. We lag behind in broadband as it is, costs have not been going down, and now this. Ugh!