The cautionary tales around broadband caps are trickling in and as I read them I wonder if amid these caps the web ecosystem is failing consumers (and maybe teleworkers) when it comes to broadband and cloud services.Here’s how and where things are breaking down.

Updated: The cautionary tales around broadband caps are trickling in, with the latest coming from André Vrignaud, who detailed in a blog post his experience of being cut off from Comcast’s Internet service after going over the company’s 250 GB per month broadband cap two months in a row. He’s justifiably outraged because he now has no Internet and he didn’t really seem to have a lot of options offered before he was cut off. My colleague Mathew experienced a similar issue with his cap, and I suspect the two stories have something in common — the cloud.

Or rather, backups of huge files. After Mathew was forced to become a network cop and figure out why he was going so far over his monthly bandwidth allotment of 95 GB per month, it took him about a month to determine the culprit — an inappropriately configured cloud-backup service with Amazon. Judging from Vrignaud’s story, he may have hit his cap doing backups as well, since he describes backing up RAW image files and FLAC audio files to a recently purchased Carbonite subscription. He also describes streaming Netflix movies and Pandora in a home with multiple roommates, as well as working from home on digital files. We’ve driven this point home before in a multitude of posts about how caps harm innovation and how they will catch more and more users over time.

But in reading this case and talking to Charlie Douglas, a Comcast spokesman, several other issues around caps came up. Issues that are more important as more users have caps. I’ve long appreciated that Comcast’s cap was pretty fair: It discloses the limits, it has a reasonable network management plan, it offers a meter and — most importantly — the cable provider says that as the median usage increases on its network, it will raise that cap. However, since the cap was implemented in 2008, when Comcast had a median usage of between 2 and 4 GB per month across its entire network, the median usage has risen only to between 4 GB and 6 GB per month. The cap hasn’t increased by a commensurate amount and Douglas was adamant in pointing out that using 250 GB a month was way above normal usage.

But what I took away from my conversation with Douglas is that the web ecosystem is failing consumers (and maybe teleworkers) when it comes to broadband and cloud services. Here’s why:

When there’s a problem, it’s hard for a consumer to know what to do: Mathew and Vrignaud both tried to take action to reduce their bandwidth consumption after being called on their excessive usage. Both failed at first to solve it after taking actions such as turning off public access points (and in Mathew’s case checking for an infected computer). Both of these guys are pretty technically savvy so imagine what happens if a normal person gets such a call. ISPs don’t provide the appropriate resources beyond notification and what Vrignaud called a “canned response.”

As people adopt cloud services, those providers don’t think about broadband: Short of Netflix taking up the crusade against caps, we don’t see Amazon, Mozy or Carbonite helping to educate users about how their services and settings for backups might influence their broadband caps. I don’t think they should have to get into this education campaign in an ideal world, but for now, we live in a world with caps. Helping customers avoid getting kicked offline or charged extra for overages is good customer service.

Residential service isn’t clear-cut anymore: When looking at this guy’s usage, it’s possible that he was using his connection for work, which prompted Douglas to point out that he had signed up for a residential connection. This is a common ISP response when people bemoan their limited caps in the context of uploading files or sharing videos as part of their jobs. But when I asked if Vrignaud would even be eligible for a business connection, Douglas didn’t know. He said that the business people would want to make sure the connection was for a legitimate business which means they would ask for a Tax ID number or some other verification. While a freelancer might have that, a remote worker wouldn’t and would then have to get their employer involved in getting a connection. In some cases, although not necessarily in this one, folks in residential areas cannot even get a business connection. Update: Vrignaud said in a conversation and in his latest blog post that he is trying to get a business connection, but it doesn’t look good.

In my many stories about broadband caps these issues haven’t really come up very often, but I think that’s about to change. And it leaves me with more questions than answers. As residential broadband becomes essential for how we do our jobs, as well as for consumer entertainment and other web-based products, it’s time for big companies to start taking a hard look at how ISPs policies will affect their employees and their ability to offer services and perhaps give a call to their favorite lobbyist. If left unchecked, this won’t stay a consumer issue for very long.

As for Comcast, when I asked if customers were getting caught in its cap more often, Douglas replied,”We don’t disclose, but logically people are doing more online and have more devices. Far less than 1 percent of our customers should ever get a call from us.” That’s not a real answer, but with 17.4 million broadband subscribers it sounds like we should expect to hear more stories on this issue in the coming months — but fewer than 174,000 of them.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr users Ryan Franklin and Arthur Caranta

  1. The caps aren’t enough. The capacity of the networks should be far beyond that of the average user. Innovation has moved at the correct rate. The cable providers haven’t met them half way.

    It should have been their expectation in 2008 that by 2011 their networks should be able to support much higher caps, especially when in the past, there have been people who maxxed out ther 56k connections and people who just used it to check their email.

    I don’t think the usage patterns have changed, but I haven’t felt a jump like 56K to Cable in a long time. Cable’s still slow and faster internet is outrageously expensive and not worth it, given the caps.

    I only pay Comcast because they’re the only game in town, but I am in no way satisfied. It’s like Verizon. They’re the fastest, but they’re still not consumer friendly.

  2. farul ghazali Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    One way the local providers here do it is to put a bandwidth cap the moment you exceed your monthly data cap. As much as I don’t like caps, I think this is at least a fair way of managing people’s expectations and you’re not stuck when you go beyond the limit.

    Problem is the local ISP thinks that a 60-120GB data cap per month is sufficient in today’s world of youtube/netflix/iTunes HD…

  3. These caps are rediculos…

  4. Stacy, don’t you think pressure should be put on the ISPs, and not innovative companies who are developing technology and optimizing it to adapt to many different bandwidth configurations?

    This is like having caps on power. No one wants it, no one is going to monitor their power usage, and people will grow increasingly upset.

    I’ve asked this a million times and never gotten a straight answer. Why hasn’t my default $45-50 a month Comcast internet gotten faster in the last 8 years or so?

    This isn’t Netflix’s fault for not educating users on how to live with caps. This is Comcast’s fault for not improving their networks to not have to impose caps. Caps mean their network is congested and they should be trying to improve it.

    Where has that improvement been since the 250GB cap was imposed?

  5. As anyone who’s had to live with a tight cap on their residential service knows, caps are a burden. 250G a month is a pipe dream (bitter joke intended) for many Americans; I’m just 30 miles west of Ann Arbor and don’t have access to a wired ISP. Anyone with a family who’s had to suffer with satellite or 3G as their sole internet connection really doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for those who stream Netflix like turning on a faucet. We know the tricks — unplug the router. Unplug the modem at night. Stop all advertisements (are you listening, retailers??), block everything that’s not necessary. Avoid Youtube, how-to videos, and any site that’s graphics-intensive. If it’s cloud-based, forgetaboutit!!! No online gaming. Don’t even bother with Carbonite or other backup services. Watch your FAP-o-meter and get used to playing the role of “Grand Inquisitor,” trying to find out who downloaded a 1G file. That’s a full-time job with teenagers.

    People will learn to self-ration. They’ll hate every moment of it, and quickly learn to prioritize what they must have, what they want and what they can live without. Game developers who want to eliminate the sales of DVDs had better take heed and Steam had better get on board dealing with the consequences of caps before it’s too late.

  6. I don’t have any sympathy for the telecom providers. Most have defered network investment as long as possible. Purchase of capacity metering systems is simply cheaper than investing in expansion of capacity. Maximizing bonus checks trumps all other priorities. Citizens rely on the Internet as a utility; most telecom providers view it as a lucrative luxury service that they can gouge consumera for.

    The real evil here is that bytes used have little to do with fairness (or imposing backpressure on users to defer capacity expansion). PEAK USAGE BITS PER SECOND rates are what counts. Long slow trickles can/ ove huge byte count volumes but don’t necessarily require infrastructure expansion. Simultaneous usage by multiple customers sharing a scarce resource pool (docsis channel pair or ISP’s uplink transit circuits) are what lead to congestion, latency and packet loss. It’s not bytes-per-month that directly affects quality of service, it is BITS PER SECOND, and notably bits per second during timee periods where a lot of other users are vying for the shared (scarce) resource.

    Transit providers have long offered metered-use ciircuits. BUT, the billing is based on peak bits per second rate observed on the circuit over the monthly billing period. They use five minute observation periods: calculate the bytes sent over the five minutes and divide by 300 seconds, this yields the average bps rate during that five minute interval. They collect this for each consecutive five minute period all month long. While the five minuute averaging can help a lot to mask very short duration high bps peaks, the transit czrriers provide an additional level of forgiveness to the customer! They sort all the five minute average bps measurements taken on the line over the month AND THEN IGNORE THE TOP 5%!! This is a relatively customer friendly billing system, and one which actually relates to usage of the underlying shared use resources.

    What the transit providers don’t take into account is time of day. In their business, traffic flows occur all around the clock, so time of day peak avoidance cannot be obtained. They build capacity to ensure offered load is conveyed. Period! In the case of most professional, credible big name transit providers, there is (essentially) no packet loss inside their core. They build capacity to deliver the offered load.

    Last mile providers see heavy interactive use during narrow time windows. If the goal is to improve the customer visible experience, then they should measure BPS rates, just like the transit providers, and preferentially penalize high bps usage during times of the day when live-user usage is greatest. High bps rates during unpopular times of the day should be forgiven (even encouraged). UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD TOTAL BYTES CONSUMED BE A FACTOR IN BILLING. Byte counts and byte caps are just gouging by the sleazy last mile provider.

    Given our country’s experiences with large, abusive corporations, I suggest the government prosecute and imprison senior telecom executives. Any lesser form of government sanction is simply viewed as a cost of doing business. (See recent news coverage of the FDA’s decision to seek criminal prosecution of executives of chronically abusive pharmaceutical companies.)

    In disgenuine fairness to the executives at last mile providers: I don’t know how they will ever obtain a fair trial. Last mile telecom providers (especially cable tv companies) are unversally reviled by the public. Politicians and used car salesmen are viewed as saints compared to the cable company. Citizens will volunteer to be prison guards just so they can laugh in the face of the (formerly abusive) telecom executives.

    1. mostly agreed, but congestion is not the only factor in the investment… there are fixed costs related to the first/last mile infrastructure… however no one with the exception of VZW has invested anything here in the past 5-7 years (at least) by my reckoning..

      i think the big(ger) problem is lack of competition. cable and phone have what used to be called (as i recollect) a natural monopoly. technology develops alternatives like wireless, but bad policy (lobbying) takes them away…

  7. Bytesused * 8 / 300 = five-minute average bits per second rate
    Sorry about the typos: even with a slide out keyboard, composition on a mobile phone remains unwieldy.

  8. André has a 15/3 connection. I assume it is a 15/3Mbps instead of MBps.
    This translates into a 1.8/0.38MBps connection.

    Assuming only download trafic, which is not realistic but makes my math easy, his:

    Max DL /hr 6,750MB
    Max DL/day 162,000MB
    Max DL/mo 4,860,000MB
    Max GB/mo 4,860

    4,860GB/mo 24/7 for 30 days. 4.8TB/month is alot of data! But it is kind of what you are sold on when they sell you a 15/3 connection, isn’t it? You expect to use it as you see fit for the 30 day period.

    With their 250 GB/mo data cap, that means that Comcast is expecting him to use his connection at full speed for only 250/4,860 = 5.14% of the time. That’s not really fair is it?

    Comcast puts the spin on it and claims that 250GB is enough to:

    Send 50 million emails (at 0.05 KB/email)
    Download 62,500 songs (at 4 MB/song)
    Download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 GB/movie)
    Upload 25,000 hi-resolution digital photos (at 10 MB/photo)

    Who could do all that kind downloading? He must be a pirate! Or, he is doing some uploading too. Hmmm….

    None of Comcast’s numbers in the table above seem to consider the Ethernet Frame overhead (upwards of 6.2%), Comcast’s SNMP polls and modem health checks, TCP Retransmit errors, and SSL overheads, to name a few of the data parasites. They must be using simple math like I did. Unfortunately, they are billing for 250GB/mo but only delivering ~235GB of data when you back out the overheads. And they get cranky with their customers because they are going over the “Cap”.

    Why aren’t customers getting cranky that they are not getting 250GB of data and that if they only use 50GB on month that they don’t get a credit or roll over. Oh yeah, it is an olygopoly.

    If they are going

  9. You clearly dont understand what you are talking about.

  10. Come on, man. If the ISPs can’t find the money you and I have been paying them, you should be mad at them too.

    Shouldn’t the cost of the service they provide decrease overtime with improvements to technology? So they should have money to invest in newer technology since they’ve provided the same service for quite some time now.

    They should take the money and provide the same service, never increasing the bandwidth caps, and never investing in new technology even as the demand for their product increases as people rely more and more on the cloud?

    How does that help your or them?

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