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Summary:

After four years, broadband caps are common in the U.S., but so far no agency is watching to make sure those caps are implemented fairly. So what happens when an internet user claims his ISP’s data usage numbers don’t match his own?

When happens when your ISP says you’re going over your broadband cap, but your own self-installed usage meter still says you have plenty of gigabytes left? That’s what Ken Stox is about to find out, as he takes on his ISP to try to figure out why his own usage numbers are 20 percent to 30 percent lower than those provided by AT&T.

Stox, a Chicago-area resident, posted his tale Wednesday morning on Slashdot after AT&T notified him that he was approaching his broadband cap. This is exactly how AT&T’s cap is supposed to work: When a user gets to 60 percent of the monthly allotment consumed, followed by the 95 percent and the 100 percent mark, AT&T sends an email. But in this case, the user was tracking his data consumption and saw AT&T’s totals didn’t match his own records.

From his Slashdot post:

When this was implemented, I started getting emails letting me know my usage as likely to exceed the cap. After consulting their Internet Usage web page, I felt the numbers just weren’t right. With the help of Tomato on my router, I started measuring my usage, and ended up with numbers substantially below what AT&T was reporting on a day-to-day basis. Typically around 20-30% less. By the way, this usage is the sum of inbound and outbound.

He then detailed how AT&T gave him the runaround when he asked about the discrepancy. He was told that AT&T’s measurement of data was “proprietary,” and that if he wanted to dispute it, he would need to write a letter. He ended his post asking if there were any regulatory agencies that monitor the accuracy of ISPs’ meters. So far, there aren’t, something I’ve called on the FCC to address, especially given that more than six in 10 U.S. broadband subscribers have some kind of data cap.

I’ve emailed the FCC to see if the agency is aware of Stox’s issue and if it had reached out to either Stox or AT&T for more information. I also reached out to AT&T with a list of questions, and will update the story if I hear back from either party.

I did speak with Stox this afternoon to find out a bit more about his situation. He says that he’s a customer of AT&T’s DSL service because he cannot get access to U-Verse in his home. (Maybe AT&T’s planned investment in expanding U-verse will help him out on this front). For now, as a DSL customer, he has a 150 GB per month cap. Once he goes over that amount he would have to pay $10 for another 50 gigabytes.

Stox said that he has received several notices from AT&T since the ISP started enforcing its bandwidth cap, so he started tracking his data consumption by using Tomato, a Linux program installed on his router that allows him to write programs to track his data and customize his router settings. He said he couldn’t send me charts of his data because he had mistakenly erased them, but as an example he said his measurements showed the he consumed 5.1 GB on November 8 while AT&T’s usage meter showed he had consumed 8.1 GB. Stox is one of the lucky AT&T customers that actually has a meter he can check.

Now, there are a couple of things that might account for this discrepancy. Stox said that AT&T might be tracking a gigabyte in the more commercial sense as 1 billion bytes, as opposed to the more technical method that would result in a number that would be roughly 7 percent higher (1,073,741,824 bytes). Stox also noted that packet headings and other information that AT&T sends to route his traffic might also account for some overage — those are bytes his router wouldn’t necessarily count. He also mentioned that his timing might not match up with AT&T’s version (for example if AT&T’s daily totals ended at 12 ET while his ended at 12 CT).

For him, the problem is that AT&T won’t share any of its methodology with him. “What’s their definition of a byte?” he asked. “What’s their version of a day? I just want to know,” he said.

AT&T offers the following from its Frequently Asked Questions section:

What is included in my usage?
Usage includes all of the data you have received (downloaded) or sent (uploaded). In addition, we take into account the standard network protocols (such as Ethernet and IP activity) that are used to transmit content via the Internet.

But that doesn’t answer all of Stox’s questions. To him AT&T’s ability to charge him $10 for more Internet access just because he’s hit some cap that’s defined by AT&T and overseen by AT&T without any required disclosure seems anti-consumer. So far, he hasn’t filed a complaint with the FCC, or with the Illinois Commerce Commission, but he did say he had been contacted by Public Knowledge and he might wait for their advice before making any formal complaint. Already the advocacy organization is using the case as an example of why the FCC needs to get more involved in monitoring and asking questions data caps.

  1. As usual, GigaOm — on behalf of its sponsor Google — attempts to harass ISPs into becoming profitless charities so that Google can make more money invading Internet users’ privacy and peppering them with ads.

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    1. What on earth does that have to do with anything in the article? This was on Google Plus, and Slashdot long before it was posted here.

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    2. Mohnish Chaudhary Wednesday, November 14, 2012

      @Brett “harass ISPs” ? Providing accurate measurement is their responsibility and they are not fulfilling it. Instead they charge use based on their inaccurate calculations! “harass customers” would be apt IMO.

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      1. They’re probably not inaccurate calculations… or at least as wildly inaccurate as it seems on the surface. The issue is that we need to know exactly *what* they’re measuring. His Tomato firmware might not be recording packet headers. It might not be recording blocked inbound traffic. The calculation window might be off between him and the ISP. All of these are things we should probably know since we’re billed against it.

        This was going to be an issue sooner or later, and the ISP’s knew it. They’ll have to disclose exactly what they measure, and everything will be fine.

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    3. Brett,
      AT&T, the resurrected MaBell, a profitless charity? What space-time continuum do you inhabit?

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      1. If you knew Brett’s Legacy, you’d press the *Ignore* button.

        Ask him about his triumphant days of Info-World and how he and Ed Foster and Nic Petreley and the Dynamic Twins and “NT is the Future” Editor In Chief… and a myriad of other things.

        Let just say, we are glad he has focused his attention to actually running a business rather than focusing on “GPL vs BSD” licensing… it just go *OLD*… which this will probably also do. He sees big bad old Google invading his domain and is scared and unwilling to make changes and screams really loud… like that kid in the grocery store that his parent won’t get him the candy he wants.

        Meh. Sorry to see he still is doing it.

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    4. That is nonsense. What does this have to do with Google? How is it harassment?

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    5. Bike shedding again huh, @Brett? Your “legacy” make you incredibly unbelievable. I see you’ve changed you attack mode since you’ve gotten out of “Journalism” and are now into being an “ISP”, and a pretty much controversial one at that.

      YMMV, BSD is the *ONLY* proper license… Linux steals from Businesses. Right Brett?

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  2. Why is it every time I read a story about excessive use and overage charges it contains the letters AT and T? I know there must be people being shut down by other ISPs, but it seem like AT&T is the most aggressive. Remember the crazy bills iPhone users got back in the old days?

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    1. Other ISPs also cap services, including Comcast, CenturyLink and others cap broadband, and some also charge overage fees. Here’s a list we did last month http://gigaom.com/2012/10/01/data-caps-chart/

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  3. I’ve got the same issue with AT&T wireless on my iPhone 4S. I use the app “my data mgr” to monitor my data consumption and compare it to what AT&T indicates. AT&T is always 3-4x higher.

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  4. “He said he couldn’t send me charts of his data because he had mistakenly erased them” – not great for an argument. Hard evidence would really help!

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  5. richardgarrison Thursday, November 15, 2012

    My ISP sent me a message that said I used 880 GB last month! Really? I don’t use bit torrent or any file sharing. I’m sure the number is completely bogus. My wifi is encrypted and I live on a dead end residential street and my neighbors are old clueless people. At least Century Link doesn’t charge extra if you exceed the cap. They just warn you and threaten to cut you off if you exceed a 250 GB cap twice in a 12 month period. Also, Century Link only counts downloads not uploads. Not that it would matter, because its the worst – 1 megabit/second.

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  6. Don’t like the service so…get the FCC involved?? How about changing providers? Every person should be leery of asking government to take more control of the free market no matter how unhappy you may be. Go to the competition and your provider will get the message No other ISP choices…then move! Internet access is not a right. Yet.

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