Comcast Closes in on Bandwidth Limits and Overage Charges


I thought I had seen the last of Comcast's traffic-shaping practices, but the Emperor of ISPs has been off concocting a new plan--a concrete, measurable method that will give the provider unprecedented control over its bandwidth. But this won't be like it's been in times prior, when Comcast would simply block or otherwise inhibits your access to the file transfer protocols of your choosing (ok, Bittorrent). Comcast is leaving your Internet habits up to you: fill the pipe as much as you want, but if your downloads burst the tube, you're going to pay big. quotes an anonymous Comcast representative for the full details of the alleged plan. All Internet subscribers will be allotted 250GB per month in download capacity. Go over, and you're fine... once. After your single freebie, Comcast will bill you $15 for every 10GB you exceed. There's no word whether you'll still get booted off the network for exceeding an undisclosed, theoretical maximum, but you'll likely be booted out of your parents' basement once that monthly bill hits.

That said, 250GB worth of downloading is a stupid-large amount of bandwidth. The Silicon Valley Insider has done an awesome job detailing just what it would take to get hit with the $15 overage charges based on a typical computer user's workload. But I've brainstormed a few additional examples that also apply. You'd have to:

  • Purchase 35 to 60 of Steam's largest titles each month (or download Portal 253 times)
  • Download one 1080p-quality movie per day
  • Browse the flickr pages of 243,809 users. Or you could just check out one user's page... and download all 85,528 of his 10.1 megapixel pictures.
  • Be your own Team Fortress 2 team. Playing 24 hours a day for each day in the month, by yourself, would only cost you 62 GB of bandwidth. But hey, that's why you need to multibox as a Soldier, a Medic, a Heavy...

I could go on, but you get the point. Unless you're trying to win the popularity award at The Pirate Bay, you're going to have a hard time filling that 250GB reservoir with your legitimate normal use, even if you consider yourself a heavy user. For once, I applaud Comcast for setting a reasonable bandwidth limit before it swings the hammer. And more so than that, I think it's great that Comcast is finally telling its users exactly what standards they'll be measured by -- and even going so far as to allude to a utility that you might be able to download that could match up your usage approximation with Comcast's.

How Comcast Gives Your Bank Account the Business

This company isn't getting any more praise out of me, because there are still two overwhelming flaws with Comcast's plan. Should you happen to go over the limit--without first being killed by your neighbors who are sharing the same cable hub--you're going to be paying an absurd amount of money for your transgression. Not to sound like Abe Simpson, but it's highway robbery. Consider the math:

  • Comcast charges $43 per month (minus taxes, fees, and only if you have pre-existing cable service) for its lowest tier of Internet service.
  • If Comcast gives you 250GB of "free" use per month, you're getting 5.81 gigabytes for every dollar you spend.
  • Comcast charges $15 for every 10GB of overage.
  • Thus, you pay 0.66 gigabytes for every dollar you spend in overage fees.

So what does the Internet cost? Should we go by Comcast's normal pricing structure -- 5.81 gigabytes per dollar -- or its overage pricing structure which incidentally, would cost you $375 dollars per month for 250GB of service. If the overage fee is designed to penalize subscribers, this represents 8.7 times that of Comcast's normal fee for comparable service. That's an unacceptable and illogical exploitation, and completely out of line from the market value of the service.

In A Perfect World...

Comcast should sell users additional bandwidth based on the original rates, or worth, of the service. If Joe Downloader uses 500GB of bandwidth, then he should be billed the same as if he just doubled his water intake for the month: a rate based on his actual use, not a punishment for going above an imaginary threshold. According to Comcast, its new suspected policies will affect 0.1 percent of its 14.1 million users. So let these 14,000 or so customers pay a fair extra for their bandwidth. If anything, Comcast's the winner in the deal: subscribers that underuse the service would still be charged at a flat rate of $43 per month (overvaluing their share of the bandwidth), and the chunk of the tube they don't use can go to others for a normal market value.

The situation gets stickier when you consider the fact that Comcast touts speedier service as an upgradable addition to its flat Internet subscription. For $67 a month, you can have downloads up to 4 Mbps faster than what you'd get on its bottom-rung Internet services. So why, then, are these subscribers -- who might very well download more as a result of their package -- not being given a similar, tiered structure for their monthly download limit? If they're receiving a 33 percent increase to their download speeds, there's no reason why they shouldn't be upgraded to a monthly download rate of 330GB.

But not all is fair or reasonable in the world of internet service. And while bits of Comcast's proposed plan seem fair considering the alternative--Time Warner's mulling limits of 5 to 40GB per month with a $1 per gigabyte overage fee--consumers shouldn't let the bull in the china shop just because it's wearing a pretty hat. At the end of the day, Comcast is a business. It's a big business. And just as it used to tout unlimited service while limiting your Bittorrents, so it is equally happy to protect the integrity of its bandwidth by unfairly pummeling your bank account into submission.

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