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Bandwidth Caps: Comcast’s Silver Bullet

September 26th, 2008 by Dean Jansen

In less than a week, Comcast will officially implement their 250GB bandwidth cap. It’s no surprise that they’re the first massive US service provider to pull this move in the home broadband market — two factors are significant: first is the pooled structure of their network.Second is the fact that Comcast is, first and foremost, a cable provider. I already see ripples pointing towards a scenario, where customers are strongly encouraged, almost coerced, to choose video that Comcast offers them.

As I mentioned, Comcast’s local nodes are shared throughout a neighborhood – often a node is made up of hundreds of individual households. When a handful of users are downloading heavily in parallel, it can slow the entire cluster down. This is why Comcast was filtering Bittorrent traffic (until the FCC ordered them to refrain from blocking). And it’s clearly part of why they’ve instituted this 250GB cap; however, I don’t believe it’s the entire story.

Comcast notes that with the allotted 250 gigs, you’ll be able to send approximately 50 million emails, download 25,000 pictures, and so on. What they don’t mention is that your 250GB will only get you around 100 hours of HD video, about 3 hours a day for your household (that’s a rough approximation). While no one is going to go over their cap sending emails, it’s easy to imagine a family quickly hitting that ceiling with HD video. All it’s going to take is a few folks going way over their cap, being forced to pay $1.50 per extra gig, and everyone will be afraid to download HD video. This threat will put pressure on Comcast broadband subscribers to watch video on their cable television setup.

It’s also conceivable that Comcast might “help” their customers avoid penalties by offering “Free HD Video Over the Internet” that could be viewed without incurring any extra bandwidth usage. It would be a natural move for the cable giant, and would also fly in the face of the net neutrality principles that have succeeded in shutting down their Bittorrent filtering. The “free” bandwidth would no doubt be subsidized by the content creators or other sponsors. It would give Comcast an unprecedented influence over what sort of high-resolution video their customers actually watched, and it reeks of cable television.

The above “Free HD Video Over the Internet” is a riff on Tim Wu’s “termination monopoly,” which he describes as an ISP leveraging their subscriber base – giving preferential access to the highest bidder (be it Google, Amazon, or ABC). The internet has demonstrated time and time again how awesome and unexpected things can happen, especially when people aren’t solely motivated by profit. When ISP’s begin leveraging their termination monopolies, it really alters the egalitarian landscape of the internet, especially with regard to HD video.

In related news, Verizon recently said they don’t plan to cap bandwidth (note that they don’t have the pooled network structure that Comcast does). Of course it’s awesome news for Verizon customers, but a significant percentage of the US home broadband market is served solely by Comcast. Stiffer competition among internet providers would turn this into a non-issue, but sadly most US markets are stuck with a weak duopoly at best.

The Comcast “Free HD Video Over the Internet” scenario should have you worried, especially if you’re a fan of media decentralization, innovation, and equal access. If you’re a Comcast customer, now may be a good time to jump ship in favor of a new ISP (Verizon?). For those without the option, I suggest you contact Comcast with a highly negative review of their new policy and keep track of what FreePress.net is up to.

Note: the woman in the above image got pissed at Comcast and destroyed one of their offices. While we think she’s cool, we don’t recommend this approach. Just boycott ‘em.

8 Responses to “Bandwidth Caps: Comcast’s Silver Bullet”

  1. William Maggos says:

    You nailed it exactly. Once the bandwidth is good enough and Miro both supports Shoutcast TV and has a leanback interface, the need for cable companies vanishes. Just give us the dumb pipe to the net. Same thing with the mobile carriers, id love to just pay for data and run VOIP.

    As a Comcast subscriber with no other options whose cable service cuts in and out, I can’t wait.

  2. Dan says:

    First of all, you make an incredible leap into speculation about what Comcast MIGHT do in regards to HD video. You have no idea this will occur. It is misleading to make such a statement. There’s way too much what the big bad cable company might do, based on conjecture and not fact. The same could easily be said about a legacy telco monopoly like Verizon, who in your article appears to be your baby.

    Second, it is misleading to say that Comcast has a “pooled structure” of a network, and to suggest that Verizon has chosen not to have a “pooled structure” and thus are somehow better. Comcast is a cable company. They have little choice but to choose a DOCSIS-based cable Internet service infrastructure as their means to deliver service. It is cable technology that contains the channel to the headend. What else is Comcast supposed to do, really on a practical level? Verizon is a legacy telco and has chosen to deploy Internet access over their legacy phone line through DSL. What else would they choose to do? They didn’t DELIBERATELY choose to avoid a technology like cable where bandwidth is shared. Like the cable companies, they wanted to get into another market and they used what was available to them to jump in as fast as they could. Verizon’s investment into laying fiber for FiOS service is an ambitous step to be applauded, but not every company can make such a huge investment, and as of right now you can’t get FiOS everywhere (I can’t get it where I live despite being just outside a major city and even though they have it in adjacent neighborhoods and sell DSL in my area.)

    Third, you insinuate that Verizon’s DSL service is better than Comcast’s cable Internet service. It’s not. I’ve had both. They are about the same price but Comcast’s service is faster. FiOS will beat cable but from what I can tell, Comcast’s cable Internet access, despite the shared channels and whatever traffic shaping they are doing, is faster than Verizon DSL.

    Fourth, HD video is really not yet possible over broadband Internet access. Neither DSL or cable can handle it. It’s hard to even handle regular definition TV at DVD (MPEG-2) quality, which really requires about 1.5Mbps sustained to truly be DVD quality. HD is much higher to get to even 720P much less 1080I or P. So suggestions about free HD video don’t even factor into the equation right now. Furthermore, any provider out there that decides to offer Free HD video and can handle it on their network will get quite a few customers, and I have a hard time believing you would be holding out to pay another provider for HD if that were the case.

    Your post is misleading and inaccurate, just more false hype from people who don’t know what they are talking about.

  3. Dean says:

    Hi Dan,

    First, speculative, yes. But since when has it been wrong to speculate? I’m not presenting any of the speculation as fact.

    Second, I said Comcast has a pooled structure, because they do. It’s not really important why Verizon or Comcast have the structures they do — it’s just important that people know the architecture was a factor in Comcast’s decision making process.

    Third, I’m not comparing the speed in this article — I’m comparing which service puts tighter limits on the total amount you can download over the period of a month. At the moment, Verizon wins on this particular comparison.

    Fourth, HD is absolutely possible over a modern broadband connection. You may not be able to stream, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to download HD video.

    The post is what it is — a look at what could be ahead as a result of Comcast’s cap.

  4. Jacob says:

    I’ve taken steps to avoid paying for television. The $80 a month for the 10 channels of dish that we watched seemed a bit misplaced. My wife and I have had fun watching our favorite TV shows on-demand-high def-online. Among them is Arrested Development hosted through hulu.com.

    Dean’s possibility of HD via the internet is becoming my reality. Granted, we pay slightly more for a higher internet connection a month, and use a local ISP to avoid some of the problems with regulations.

    Well written piece of work. Looks like you proof read–time will tell who’s conclusions are right. In the interim it’s something to think about.

    -Jacob

  5. It’s funny because they emphasize watching videos in their ads for subscription plans, 250 gigs is a lot in comparison to our Canadian neighbors who I’ve heard horror stories of being limited to 10gb with the highest package.

  6. bengt says:

    Yes, we get hosed in Canada for the most part – only a handful of ‘competitors’ who offer suspiciously similar service for the same price, and also pinch the pipe to stifle downloading of movies. Coincidentally Bell (our major telco) released an online movie purchasing service a month after pinching their subs. There was a protest on Parliament Hill. I guess we’re serious about our Internet eh? Or seriously hate getting bent over by the man.

    Anyhow we are looking to open a carrier neutral data center and pilot some ftth (fibre to the home) services and see how it flies. God bless Cogent, they make it affordable. Would be interesting to see them get into the video delivery service.. for $4/Mb/s uncapped, you can do some serious downloading.

    Anyhow, good post. Dan, I don’t know who’s filling your shorts at Comcast, but you are also suspicious. I’m not sure anyone not on the payroll would miss the point so blatantly.

    Not to be rude of course.

  7. nyimamahrpo says:

    I had comcast, almost wrote it as concast,…hit me for 400 directory assistance calls, did not do. Atty gen., consumer div,. of my state ck’d out, 4-1-1 folks never knew or if did. told me what numbers were for re: called all hours on a 45 day period.
    Unbelievable. Quit them ‘tho I never paid for bogus calls, thought the handling took way too long. Would not trust them. Offers seem too high priced too, for net, cable and phone.
    For their supposed national coverage, and size of customer base they should be cheaper. This internet limit smacks of govt. control/collusion in disguise.
    What’s next a time limit on electricity use? How about water nationwide, or who knows what’s next…Animal Farm??

  8. Nathan Jones says:

    Meanwhile, here in Australia, the thought of unlimited Internet access is a pipe dream. Plans here are capped (your link gets throttled to 56Kbps once you reach the limit) at 5Gb, 10Gb, or maybe more… if you pay enough. One of the more daring ISPs is offering a 150Gb limit, but wholesale access prices are not yet low enough to go unlimited.

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