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Summary:

Comcast’s broadband subscribers now consume a median of between 4 and 6 GB of data each month, up from 2-4 GB, thanks to the proliferation of devices using Wi-Fi in the home and streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu.

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Comcast’s broadband subscribers now consume a median of between 4 and 6 GB of data each month, up from 2-4 GB, thanks to the proliferation of devices using Wi-Fi in the home and streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu. Charlie Douglas, a Comcast spokesman, had affirmed in early December that the nation’s largest ISP still had the same median data consumption among subscribers as it had reported back in 2008, but in a conversation today, he said the number had changed. Apparently, Comcast updated its website “a few weeks ago” noting the increase in its Frequently Asked Questions section. From the FAQ:

Data usage changes over time as our customers use the Internet and the services and applications available for it. Currently, the median data usage by Comcast High-Speed Internet customers is approximately 4-6 GB each month (these numbers may vary on a monthly basis). This reflects typical residential use of the service for purposes such as sending and receiving e-mail, surfing the Internet, and watching streaming video.

Douglas attributed the increase to more people using Wi-Fi on devices such as iPads and smartphones in the home. This makes sense, given that most people switch over to Wi-Fi in to avoid hitting caps on their mobile data plans, as well as getting faster speeds. However, there’s likely another factor at play that Comcast may be less eager to publicize: The adoption of video streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix also are changing the demand profile among Comcast’s 16.7 million broadband subscribers. The last big spike in demand among the user base was the widespread adoption of iTunes for downloading music. (Please recall that a median is the midpoint on the usage spectrum, as opposed to an average, which Comcast does not disclose.)

Having such a data point available provides a sense of how much web use is growing among U.S. cable broadband subscribers, but it also shows how proposed caps suggested just a few years ago in 2008, such as Frontier’s planned 5 GB per month cap, would look ludicrous today. Speaking of caps, although Douglas told me back in 2008 that one way to boost Comcast’s own 250 GB per month cap was to increase the overall data usage, he said there are no plans at Comcast right now to change or raise the current limits.

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  1. Data use over an ISP’s customer base will fall along a powerlaw curve, not a bell curve, so the median monthly usage doesn’t say much about how the network is really being used. There will be a lot of people using a hundredth as much data and a few people using a hundred times more data. The customers using lots of data are likely pioneering new ways to use the network that the bulk of customers will want to copy a few years down the road. Bandwidth caps choke that innovation and ultimately are bad for Comcast’s customers and the economy.

  2. I hear the argument all the time that data metering (caps, usage based pricing or data throttling) by ISP’s or wireless providers is going to quash innovation. This may be true in certain instances, depending upon what the heavy data users are doing. On the other hand, wouldn’t some forms of metering (such as usage based pricing) properly applied foster other beneficial forms of innovation, such as improved compression and more resource-friendly music and video streaming? I’m wary of absolute statements and conclusions with regard to data and ISP’s/wireless providers. I have no interest in subsidizing someone else’s obsession with HD porn or collection of copyright violations. With flat rate, no limits data plans this is one consequence, and likely the most common.

  3. Stacey or other readers:

    Can anyone tell me how the additional data transmission increases costs for Comcast? Most of their network is fixed cost, so I imagine maybe a few more Cisco routers, but this is not like water or non-peak electricity, where the costs follow a rather linear cost curve. I see double the data, and my suspicion tells me that Comcast wants us to believe their costs are doubling, but that they’re only going up 20%, or so. Any thoughts?

  4. asmiller-ke6seh Friday, February 4, 2011

    Median is but one type of “average”. Other types are mean (which is what I think was meant by “average”, in the article, above) and mode.

    The ‘mean’ is calculated by taking the number of data items (n) in a set, adding them together and then dividing the total by (n):

    (X1 + X2 + X3 … + Xn) / n = mean.

  5. Broadband Caps: Maybe It’s Not Just About TV: Broadband News and Analysis « Friday, March 18, 2011

    [...] Comcast has seen its median creep up, and I personally saw my broadband use rise after I brought an iPad into my home. At the time, [...]

  6. Will Content Streaming Make ISPs Rich?: Broadband News and Analysis « Wednesday, March 30, 2011

    [...] as I have added more devices and stream more content. I’m not alone. Comcast has seen its median use jump in the last few years from 2-4 GB consumed per month to 4-6 GB per month. My consumption rose from [...]

  7. For Time Warner Cable, Broadband Booms: Broadband News and Analysis « Thursday, April 28, 2011

    [...] such as Netflix and Facebook. In addition, many of us are using in-home wireless networks to access data via mobile phones and tablets. This is a trend that is likely to continue for [...]

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