The upside to the 250GB Comcast cap – If we fight for it!

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Comcast’s 256 GB Cap

Depending on how up to date you are on your tech news, you may or may not be aware that starting October 1st, Comcast is implementing a set 250 GB/month bandwidth cap. ArsTechnica has a great break down with background history which you can read here to get caught up.  While this announcement comes from Comcast it is representative of troubling behavior and policies which have secretly been in place for years across a number of major ISPs. If you’re a regular reader you’re probably aware of my issues with my own provider: Cox Communications.  Regardless of which ISP you’re on, if you’re in the US you will be affected eventually.

I’m a firm believer that unlimited, or at the very least, extremely high daily bandwidth caps are a hugely important factor in the future of the US as a competitive world player. For a more in-depth look at how broadband is handled abroad and my thoughts on the economic impact, please see my past Part I & 2 posts on the Technological (Digital) Revolution available here and here.  I would also like to take a moment to be very clear.  While I am pointing out a potential upside to the current bandwidth caps, I am in no way a supporter or endorsing them.

Right now ISPs: 1) Throttle what they see as P2P-like activity indiscriminately; and 2) Oversell their product offering. In large part due to a powerful lobbying arm and a lack of competition, ISPs have been able to get away with murder. They make up their own rules, regularly lie to their customers, and generally do as they want.  Recently when the FCC got involved in a case involving Comcast we saw the start of what may be some accountability in the industry. All of that said, currently there is no pressure whatsoever on ISPs to deliver the service they’ve sold you.  Most providers bill their services as unlimited, but have near-secret soft caps.   Because of the nebulous nature of the service description provided and the lack of understanding most users have of how their high speed cable bill works, there are seldom any challenges to this lack of service delivery.

The Upside

With set caps the ISP’s are defining a fair-use limit, which I assume will be legally binding. Previously, users were provided with the speed tier they were paying for, 7 mb/s for example, and the price. Now price, speed, and bandwidth have been laid out in concrete terms.  This is significant because it removes any valid claim on the ISP’s behalf that super users (typically P2P users) are clogging the pipes, slowing down other users and destroying ISP’s profitability by using excessive bandwidth. The ISPs have now defined for us – the consumer – what constitutes fair use and the service we are paying for.  So long as Comcast users use less than 249.99999 GB of bandwidth a month, they are within the allotted bandwidth they have paid for.

There is now NO grounds for ISPs to throttle P2P and other similar traffic as it can not be claimed that P2P/Gaming/Multimedia users (within their allotted bandwidth) are abusing the network. Especially since ISPs can NOT differentiate between legal P2P usage and illegal P2P usage.  There are hundreds of legal uses for P2P software and throttling it because of the possibility of illegal use is like banning e-mail because it is used by Nigerian bank scammers. Further, the current throttling activities being used by some ISPs may hinder streaming media, particularly online video games which rely on a constant, timely exchange of data.

This is a point being largely ignored/unrealized and one which the ISP’s will work to “overlook”.  They made their bed, now it’s time they lay in it. Get your hands off my data and out of my pockets.

Cox Quotes

The following are quotes from a recent exchange I had with Chris, a high level Cox technician responsible for monitoring customer complaints across newsgroups, blogs, and other similar web resources. It took a lot of back and forth but he confirms several extremely revealing things about Cox’s customer policies and network maintenance.

If my previous fails to answer you question on this issue, I simply do not know how to answer your question.  What I can tell you is that streaming media an online gaming work with our service and you will observe no impact on the performance of these functions. If you are asking if out network management practices affect these services I cannot tell you that because I simply do not know. If you are observing performance related problems with online gaming and streaming media there is a problem that we need to fix.

This comes from the end of our 14 e-mail exchange after extensive back and forth.  It is important to note that the discourse started because I posted audio of a Tier I tech telling me Cox did throttle P2P, and a Tier 2 Tech telling me immediately after being escalated that they did not hinder ANY traffic whatsoever.  What I find revealing is that when pressed repeatedly he still gives me a concrete answer saying that media and gaming won’t be effected, but in the very next sentence contradicts any credibility he has on the subject when stating that he has no idea how/what they do to manage “P2P” traffic.

I know of no technology that can differentiate between legal and illegal traffic. The primary goal of our network management policy is to ensure that all of our customers have adequate bandwidth and to prevent heavy users from denying service to others.

I’d like to reiterate that P2P technology is an amazing resource and used for countless legal tools/applications.  One such use is my P2P based library modernization project.  There is NO valid reason for it’s restriction.  Regardless of the hogwash RIAA and other lobbyist groups have tried to convince us of.

As far as a heavy user is concerned, we are basically trying to prevent a situation where a single customer or a group of customers is over utilizing their connection to the point that it prevents the remaining customers from using their connection and achieving speeds at or close to the advertised rates.  There is a fundamental flaw with the suggestion that you should be able to utilize your connection without any restrictions until reaching the stated monthly caps.  The problem is with the speeds we are offering our customers now you could easily reach those stated caps within a couple of days. Such a high utilization in such a short span of time would likely cause a denial of service to other customers such as I described above.  As far as enforcement of the advertised caps are concerned, due to the lack of an accurate customer facing tool to monitor usage we have been lenient with enforcement with regards to this abuse issue.

I understand this argument, but I don’t buy it. When you pay your taxes to maintain city and state roads it’s an all you can eat setup.  This is no different.  By that same bar when traffic in one area or another becomes particularly congested the government doesn’t turn your car off, or flatten your tires.  They improve the roads and increase their capacity and load to service demand.  The limitation is how much gas you buy, or in this case, monthly bandwidth.

If you’re a Cox subscriber you’re probably curious what your monthly caps are.  If you’re on their standard plan, you might be surprised to learn you only get 40gb of downstream and 10gb of upstream a month. To put that into perspective, that’s less bandwidth in a month up/down combined, than the Japanese are alloted in 2 days. The real kicker?  They’re also paying less and their available speeds are significantly higher. View Cox’s full cap breakdown here.

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Generation Cox – A Brave New World…of Hypocritical Crap

Generation Cox – Audio

I have to confess.  There is a special place in my heart for Cox Communications. Few things leave a mark in a consumer’s memory like the distinct pleasure of spending hours on hold with a company on multiple occasions, only to be told boldfaced lies. As if that wasn’t enough, their disgusting version of – it can’t be us, it must be you – tech support has definitely scored them points. Despite my previous low estimation of the company, the revelations I’ve had and discoveries I’ve made over the last 6 months have shredded any remaining respect I had for Cox. I’ve debated making a post outlining some of these experiences in the past, but it took their new advertising campaign combined with concrete testing, rankings done by the P2P community, to really push me over the edge and today’s announcement by Japanese ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that they would start throttling upload bandwidth…on users that use over 30gb…a day.

I’ve discussed it previously and as a result will only briefly mention it here, but what makes the ISP/Bandwidth debate all that much more pathetic is that the U.S. – the founders of the internet – is now ranked 15th for broadband penetration.  This fails to even realistically consider how far behind we are with respect to broadband speeds. The US is talking in single digit gigabyte connections while foreign nations are offering as much as triple digit connections for the same price…or less.

You may or may not be familiar with the current struggle being waged in Washington and throughout the U.S. between consumers, visionaries and ISPs. In brief, the argument is that P2p (Peer 2 Peer) users are using a disproportionate amount of the bandwidth available driving up ISP costs and heavily impacting the quality of the connections of their fellow users.  Ever notice how your internet slows down distinctly after 5:00? Thus far the ISP’s chief argument and technique for lobbying tech-oblivious lawmakers has been to claim that not only is the P2P network traffic unfair, it’s illegal. As a result they have pushed for laws banning P2P altogether, while simultaneously secretly operating software that blocks certain types of high bandwidth applications and hinders your connection.

The catch is P2P isn’t illegal. Don’t get me wrong – a fair amount of the content transfered through it is – but the software itself is not. From the distribution of open source software, to video game patches, to authorized music, ebooks, photos and home video, it has a multitude of uses all of which are being legally employed. Beyond that, certain other types of high bandwidth content that’s getting throttled is also completely legal.  Things like massively multiplayer online games (think World of Warcraft), and even streaming video resources like Hulu.  ComCast just got in a fair share of legal and PR trouble for the techniques they employ. Not to be outdone, Cox has been ranked as the 2nd worst bandwidth throttler in the U.S.  Very little action is being taken against these groups in large part because the average consumer doesn’t realize just how badly they’re being screwed. ArsTechnica reported:

Of the nine ISPs in the US found to block BitTorrent, Comcast and Cox were far and away the most aggressive. Both blocked more than half of all attempted BitTorrent tests on their networks (82 of 151 tests on Cox were blocked, while 491 of 788 tests on Comcast met the same fate).

What makes it that much more agitating is that not only does Cox block certain types of streaming high bandwidth traffic, they will also reset your cable modem secretly forcing you to power down and reboot before the system will recognize you again…All the while blaming it on your hardware or other failures.  In recent months techs have started fessing up if you ask them directly, but as little as 3 months ago they would blatantly lie to your face about it blaming software, the network, outages or faulty routers. I can’t even begin to guess how many customers spent hundreds of dollars replacing hardware for no reason or how much money Cox made off tech support calls (if they don’t find a problem you get charged).  Again, this doesn’t only apply to LEGAL P2P use, it applies to gaming and some types of streaming video.

It gets worse. Not only will they throttle/kill your service illegally they also limit your alloted traffic without bothering to tell you, all the while using deceptive advertising that leaves you thinking that they’d be doing the exact opposite.  Before I outline the details, let’s take a look at their advertising and weboffering:

Keep in mind that this video is one of several in their current “A Brave New World” campaign.  All of which make equally deceptive and ludicrous claims and implications.

To recap the video, the advertisement states that “soon virtually everything they watch will be in HD and available at any time.  They’ll even watch TV on their cell phones” The second advertisement depicts streaming video conferencing and again talks about the future.  In addition to the ads there are two pages on the website in particular I want to take a closer look at.

Page 1 – PowerBoost: One of the cornerstones of Cox’s advertising is their PowerBoost technology. About which Cox claims, “When extra bandwidth is available on Cox’s local fiber-hybrid network, you will experience a faster download. Speeds will be boosted up to 29% faster for Preferred customers, and up to 33% faster for Premier customers”. So, while you may think you’re buying a 9mb connection you’re really getting 7mb. The page describing powerboost references all sorts of wonderful uses for your bandwidth such as video, music and even photos.

Page 2 – Tiers and Pricing: This page describes the 3 tiers that Cox offers outlining important numbers like your download speed, upload speed, and price. Then they go so far as to offer a wonderful ‘features section’ telling you what you can/should use that added speed for.  If we overlook the fact that most of the numbers for the first tier are complete lies, we can see that in the standard mid-range tier they have the gall to list Multimedia Web Surfing, Streaming Video/Music, and Downloading Large Files and Online Gaming, Telecommute/Remote Office as “You could, but…”. If they were actually delivering the 7mb connection (which in my experience they usually actually only provide 1.5-4mb connections) you should have more than sufficient bandwidth for any of the activities on the list. While they’re starting to catch up, most webhosts can’t offer more than 400kb/s.  In actuality the lion’s share of sites you probably use peak out at about 75kb/s. Keep in mind that there are 1,000kb in a mb, and 1,000mb in a gigabyte. For my part I’d LOVE the ability to actually pull data at 7,000,000kb/s wouldn’t you?

In fact, if they weren’t meddling with your connection and were actually delivering what you paid for, the 1.5 mb connection would be more than sufficient for playing online games, downloading at 400kb/second, and watching streaming video…simultaneously. What makes the whole thing that much more deceptive is the upload rates which are horrible.  THAT is where a large part of the bottleneck occurs since even while accessing a website you are both sending and receiving information.  It’s also what complicates things with P2P networks and to a lesser extent online games in which you’re sending data symmetrically instead of the classical asymmetrical way you access the WWW. In this way they effectively reduce that 7mb connection with “power boost” to a 512kb connection. Slick, huh?

That’s not the extent of their misinformation though. You see, Cox also has monthly bandwidth caps. Even if you’re fairly tech savy and a capable consumer you probably didn’t know that, ehh?  They don’t mention it ANYWHERE on either of the order pages.  In fact, to find it you have to select the “Policy” link (which is super fine print) in the footnote of the page.  Then navigate down through the legal speak to point 13: “Bandwidth, Data Storage and Other Limitations” and select the link to “Limitations of Service“. This page is so obscure they don’t even bother keeping it up to date.  As of this post, it was last updated 11/7/07 and outlines the following for the “Preferred with Powerboost” option:

  1. Maximum downstream speed : 5 – 9 megabits per second
  2. Maximum upstream speed : 512 kilobits – 2 megabits per second
  3. Maximum monthly consumption cap : 40 gigabytes downstream; 10 gigabytes upstream
  4. Personal WebSpace account size : 10 megabytes of disk space per User ID
  5. Personal WebSpace traffic : 300 megabytes of traffic per month (for visitors viewing your pages)

That’s right, you no doubt had no clue, but there’s a 40gb monthly cap associated with your account. Please recall that the Japanese ISPs just adopted one of these with a 30gb DAILY cap for UPLOADs. So the individual’s subscribing to that Japanese ISP are recieving 90 times more bandwidth than you are with your Cox account. Still think that the American ISP’s argument that they can’t provide the bandwidth is valid?

I rest my case. On a parallel note:

I don’t subscribe to Cable TV anymore. Frankly, there isn’t really a point.  I run dual 22 inch wide-screen monitors and the ability to surf the web, pause, start, fast forward, and chat while watching a film/show in full screen far outweighs sitting on my sofa in my living room staring at a slightly larger monitor.

In addition to the lack of flexibility, I’ve always found the business model abusive. In what other delusional reality would it be acceptable for a service that costs $30+ a month to sell you a service, for which you have to purchase all of the peripherals to use it, in which you pay for a set continuous service, and then have to sit through 15 some odd minutes of advertisements every hour?  Do the math – 15 minutes, is 25% of an hour.  So in reality, I guess that $30-50 is really only buying you 45 minutes of programing an hour.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then have the nerve to sell you channel packs full of useless crap. I appreciate the sentiment, but I really, really don’t need the biblical channel or the Latino vibes channel and since you’ve already acquisitioned 25% of my time, I’d rather not spend any more of what’s left flipping through channels than I have to.  In fact, all I really want is 5 or 6 channels that don’t suck.  With all that said, I suppose it’s not really a surprise that I jumped ship as soon as possible and switched over to services like Hulu.

It’s time we hold these crooks accountable.  Sadly, our representatives are either too corrupt or inept to protect us and look out for our best interests.  Write to them, demand accountability from them, and don’t swallow the pigswill they’re trying to feed you.

With friends like these ushering us into the digital age, who needs enemies?