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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