The real meaning of Comcast generosity


In the old days –

10 years ago, I entered the "broadband" world as a DSL customer with GTE.  I started at 768 kbit/s service, and it was about $35/mo.  A lot has happened since then, GTE spat out Verizon, and eventually offered more speed for the same money.  Cable modem service was pretty lousy until Insight Communication unleashed their 10 mbit/s service in my area.  I have been a cable modem user ever since.

I do IT work, as well as independent graphics and filmmaking work (bit of a hobby), so my life is tied very tightly to the internet and I don't mind paying a little more for extra capacity.

However, I live in one of those "effective monopoly" areas where there's effectively only one cable provider, only one phone provider, and most of the independent ISPs have been run out of business.  My cable provider, Insight, eventually gave way to Comcast, which brings us to today.  Comcast's service didn't start out "too bad", the only thing I noticed is that all in all, performance went down a bit.

The loss of Net Neutrality –

In addition to Comcast's secret, but well known practice of shutting off service to those who exceed a secret amount of bandwidth per month, it was also discovered that Comcast was secretly and arbitrarily slowing down specific kinds of network traffic, at their discretion.  The FCC told them not to, Comcast said they stopped, but of course, it was discovered that this was not entirely (nor partly) true.  But NOW they say they've stopped, for reals. 

The FCC of the last 8 years hasn't exactly been consumer-focused.  But surprisingly, even they saw Comcast's secret bandwidth manipulation for what it was – anti-competitive behavior.  I'm not sure how much of that was FCC fortitude and how much of it was political pressure, but at least it was something. 

The New (double) Deal –

Comcast, theoretically, gave up its secret manipulation of your internet traffic, deciding instead on taking a different course.  They announced plans to implement a new two-pronged scheme that they publicly claimed was aimed at both curbing internet usage preventing congestion on their network.  A plan they call "generous".

This has been implemented as of January. 

Prong #1 – Comcast now has a publicly stated limit of 250 Gigabytes of downloaded data per month.  You are not currently allowed to know how much bandwidth Comcast thinks you've used, but if you use more, and if Comcast chooses to, they will call you to and ask you to curb your usage.  If you don't, you may be disconnected for 6-months.  Seems pretty straight forward.

Prong #2 – This is more interesting.  If you use more than 70% of your bandwidth for 15 minutes or more, your data may be delayed or dropped.  Theoretically, this only happens during times of congestion, but details on how it specifically works are sparse, so knowing what Comcast is really doing is, how to put it, "a matter of faith".

Generosity or something just a tad more selfish? –

On the surface, these two rules might appear to be part of a new, data-neutral Comcast, just trying to to relieve clogged network traffic on behlf of their customers.  But the curious mind would naturally ask –

  • What kinds of data are likely to put someone over 250 Gigabyte limit each month?
  • What kinds of data are likely to utilize 70% of one's bandwidth for 15 minutes or more, tripping the delay/drop switch?
  • Why isn't the data that Comcast sends to me part of the data limit?
  • If Comcast is having throughput problems that necessitate these bandwidth constrictions, why did they just announce and implement 50 mbit/s service?

Never presume stupidity when greed is a possibility –

This is better said with an analogy.  Let's say you buy everything from various online vendors and have it shipped to your house via FedEx, because it's the only courier who delivers to your house.  Amazon is a vendor that depends on a delivery service, so they buy FedEx.  Now Amazon is both a distributor and controls the means of delivery for all other vendors.  Then, Amazon says "we'll ship as many boxes of Amazon goods to your house as you want, for a monthly fee.  We'll still ship boxes from other companies, but you can only receive 100 lbs. of boxes per month, and if you try to send a lot of boxes at once, we reserve the right to delay or lose them at our discretion.  It should only affect 1% of our customers, it is very generous.  It will help ease shipping/delivery congestion."

Comcast is a content distributor, and they rely on sending their data to your home like other content distributors.  Now that they are in the ISP business, they control the means of delivery for all content providers who need to send their data to you, but their goal is, of course, to protect the profits of their own content distribution business. 

So, naturally, they would seek to arrange things so that their services supersede all other vendors.

So, why a 250 GB cap?  Because the media content Comcast competes with is big.  4 gigs or more for a standard full-quality DVD.  A Blu-ray HD movie in its native format could technically be up to 50 GB (though usually around 25 at the moment).  Add a few movies on top of all the little crap you download every day, with windows updates, maybe you have a few remote desktop sessions open 24/7 like I do, internet radio, maybe you downloaded the Windows 7 beta, you watch a lot of netflix streams,  webcams,  etc, it all adds up. Comcast is well aware that the few who get their media from other vendors today will multiply over time, because cable service just isn't very competitive compared to the on-demand, wide variety, internet world.

So, why a delay/drop if one uses 70% of bandwidth for 15 minutes?  Let's say you download a movie from one of Comcast's competitors, Vudu, which is sort of a Netflix for HD video.  Vudu movies take a long time to download, even at 100% of your bandwidth.  Disrupting such services would be in Comcast's interest.  If your download keeps dropping, you may give up and just use Comcast's competing services instead.

So, why isn't the data that Comcast sends to me part of the data limit?  Because Comcast makes the rules and you're lucky you even have internet service in this town, chump.  When it comes down to it, your digital cable service is essentially video streamed over the network, but you can watch Comcast HD all day with no penalty or restriction, the restriction only applies to the stuff you get from other distributors.  If this doesn't underline anti-competitive practice, I don't know what does.

So, If Comcast is having throughput problems that necessitate these bandwidth constrictions, why did they just announce and implement 50 Mbit/s service?  Well this is an interesting one:

As I said, I started in the broadband world 10 years ago with 768 Kbit/s monthly plan.  One would assume that 10 years later, Comcast would have a network backbone that's a little more substantial.  So let's do the math:

Today, I pay for 10 Mbit/s service:

10 Mbit/s = 3240 GB/Month

but Comcast tells me I'm not allowed to use 92% of it, leaving me with 250 GB/Month:

250 GB/Month = 771 kbit/s.


On a monthly basis, everyone on Comcast, whether they have 1mbit or 50mbit service actually has a maximum of 771 kbit/s of service over the course of the month, period.  No different than the DSL I had 10 years ago –  except that no one was secretly deciding whether my data was important enough to actually make it to my desktop, and there was no threat of being cut off for actually using bandwidth that was paid for and made available to my connection. If Comcast's network is as frail, outdated, and oversold as it claims – such that it can barely stay up with a decade old level of bandwidth – something seems very wrong.

So, in short, I struggle to find any logic to the notion that Comcast's primary interest is in preventing network congestion.

You might say "Other ISPs have used download caps and speed throttling in the past. What makes Comcast different?" Well, this is an issue for the FCC to figure out. It can be argued that the independent ISP is largely a thing of the past, and capping downloads contributed to the demise of many. But Comcast is not just an ISP, it has a vested interest in pushing you toward services it, as a content distributor, provides. In many areas it carries monopoly weight, sitting on cable infrastructure embedded into just about every home. So the question isn't about the rights of an ISP to set its terms of service… it's about whether Comcast, as a content distributor/infrastructure/ISP hybrid, can align its ISP terms of service and operational practices in such a way that discriminates against competing internet based services.


A New FCC, a New Hope –

I actually wrote this article in October, but sat on it until now because yesterday's FCC just didn't give me a lot of confidence (to put it very, very nicely).  But as of today, the FCC is new, hopefully has a new direction, and will hopefully take a more critical look at the conflicts of interest posed by Comcast and other media vendor/ISP hybrids.  In fact, today they are taking a look at Comcast's VOIP policy with the same lens.

There are three critical principles that I think should govern the behavior of any company that wishes to engage in ISP-like business (and yes, these are broad generalizations, not necessarily worded as I might word them in a final regulation, and I recognize that there must be some nuance).

  1. Data is sold as throughput only, not as a cap or combination of factors.  If you pay for a gym membership, you can be at the gym as much or as little as you like.  If you pay monthly for 10Mbit/s, you should get up to 10Mbit/s ALL MONTH LONG.
  2. It is up to the ISP to provide sufficient throughput to reasonably support the levels of service they have sold.
  3. Packets sent or requested by a subscriber are routed BLINDLY.  They are not inspected, parsed, subject to delay, unless there is a warrant or external evidence that the machine in question is engaged in an intentionally malicious activity against the function of another machine. 

Or some facsimile thereof.

As for Comcast itself, I actually have to give them a hand.  Other companies tend to hide their contempt for the customers as a general rule.  But in providing real-world, straightforward and crude examples of why we need it, Comcast has done more to progress the cause of net neutrality than the EFF.

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