Public Knowledge: Data Caps Are Screwing Things Up

by admin on Jul.15, 2011, under Uncategorized

(Original at Public Knowledge)

It is unclear why excessive data use that does not cause network congestion matters to Comcast. It is further unclear how Comcast determined that 250 GB was “excessive” in 2008, and why it has not revised that level in the years since.

By Michael Weinberg on July 14, 2011

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While Comcast is not alone in imposing data caps, its data cap is problematic for at least two reasons.  First, the punishment for going over the cap is draconian.  Two violations in six months can result in one year of internet exile.  For many customers, losing access to Comcast will be losing access to their best option for a fast internet connection.  (Take a look at this chart of ISP performance from Netflix if you are not convinced.  Notice that ISPs end up clustering by underlying technology type, with cable providers leading the pack followed by DSL and eventually wireless.)

Second, Comcast does not even claim that the caps serve a legitimate purpose.  In 2008, Comcast drew an explicit distinction between throttling designed to ease network congestion and data caps designed to punish “excessive” users.  It is unclear why excessive data use that does not cause network congestion matters to Comcast.  It is further unclear how Comcast determined that 250 GB was “excessive” in 2008, and why it has not revised that level in the years since.

In fact, Comcast appears to now be contradicting statements it made to the FCC in the past about its data cap.  In 2008, Comcast went to some pains to draw a distinction between congestion management practices such as peak time throttling and “excessive use” policies like data caps:

“These congestion management practices [such as throttling] are independent of, and should not be confused with, our recent announcement that we will amend the ‘excessive use’ portion of our Acceptable Use Policy, effective October 1, 2008, to establish a specific monthly data usage threshold of 250 GB per account for all residential HIS customers.  … That cap does not address the issue of network congestion, which results from traffic levels that vary from minute to minute.”

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Ultimately these caps punish consumers for trying to adopt new internet services, especially services based in the cloud.  As the FCC noted in the National Broadband Plan, cloud-based services can bring huge benefits to the public.  However, many cloud-based services involve transferring significant amounts of data back and forth between a user and a remote server.  As a result, data caps allow ISPs to discourage people from using cloud-based services simply because they can.

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