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Summary:

Bandwidth caps are a bad idea, but a story from earlier this month shows how our love of connected devices and the increasing prevalence of caps could lead to consumer angst.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

As Comcast sets itself up to merge with Time Warner Cable’s broadband subscribers, which could result in almost four out of five US broadband subscribers getting some kind of data cap, an Amazon Fire TV user just provided us with yet another reason why caps are so problematic for the average person.

As my colleague Mathew Ingram and at least one game developer have also discovered, broadband caps turn consumers into network cops forced to investigate how one of the many dozens of devices in their home might be behaving badly and causing a problem. And even if they can figure out the offending device, they may have little recourse when it comes to stopping the problem.

Earlier this month a freelance writer named Tyler Hayes noticed he had blown through his 250 gigabyte per month data cap by a lot; more than three times over. So he found what he thought was the culprit and then he went to tell the world via social media. Unlike many who flock to the internet to complain, Hayes was right: his Amazon Fire TV was the reason he had consumed 80 GB in one day. But he was wrong about exactly why it had happened.

Tyler Hayes documented the bandwidth increase caused by his Fire TV.

Tyler Hayes documented the bandwidth increase caused by his Fire TV.

Lucky for Hayes, Amazon is now aware of the problem. It has determined that the cause is not the ASAP recommendation and show caching service that Hayes thought and it is trying to fix the actual bug, which is in an opt-in screensaver function. Amazon offered the following statement when I asked about Hayes’ post:

We have confirmed this issue was not caused by ASAP. A big thanks to this customer for helping us find an edge case bug related to our screensaver. There is a small possibility if a customer uses the “mosaic” feature (not the default setting) on the screensaver images will not be cached. We’re working on a software update that will fix the bug, and in the meantime customers can turn off the mosaic view for the screensaver to avoid the issue. To date, we have not heard about this issue from other customers.

So those of you with a data cap might want to turn off the mosaic function in the screen saver and thank your lucky stars that Amazon cares enough about customer service to solve this issue before your ISP charges overage fees. And while Amazon is behaving correctly here, and while many ISPs offer both grace periods where they won’t charge for overages, as well as notifications as a consumer nears an overage, it still forces the consumer to figure out what went wrong.

Most notices from ISPs when a customer nears a data cap suggest that a teen might be streaming video or some neighbor is siphoning off your Wi-Fi. They don’t instruct users to think about whether they recently bought a new connected device in the last month that might have a software bug. And as more devices are connected, like locks, thermostats and even appliances, the opportunity that those devices might actually consume much more data than advertised rises.

When someone like Amazon is at fault, the consumer will likely be fine. But what happens when a Kickstarter beta or some connected gizmo with shoddy code is the culprit? Then will you be stuck hoping your ISP is in forgiving mood while having paid for a buggy device?

Thanks to our love of connected devices and the increasing prevalence of data cap, caveat emptor may apply in entirely new ways for consumers in the years ahead. If you want to know if you should worry, check our chart to see which ISPs are capping your connection.

  1. Stacey – Are you suggesting that ISPs should simply let their networks be overrun by OTT services generating all of the revenue? While I agree data caps aren’t great, especially since I’m a consumer too (I sure don’t want to pay more), how else do the broadband providers stay in business? How do they fund faster and more secure networks? Their margins should not have to be battered while Amazon, Google, Netflix, and other get rich… or should they? Where’s the other side of the story?

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    1. Kyle Hardin Monday, June 30, 2014

      Internet connections are already limited by bandwidth throughput. Also limiting them by quota caps is just a money grab. It doesn’t cost an isp much more money to run a connection at 100 percent or 50 percent. An ongoing connection like this amazon bug might cause network congestion, but it should not result in outstanding expense for the isp. As far as congestion goes, we as consumers are paying for the amount of bandwidth throughput that we are advertised. We should be able to use that connection at the speed we pay for. If I pay for a 6mbps connection, then I should be able to use 6mbsp at any given the without stressing the isps network. If such usage does stress the network, then isps are selling something they don’t have.
      The problem is that isps have fooled us into thinking of bandwidth as a fixed amount of data instead of what it really is, which is traffic in a connection. I’m paying for a set amount of traffic, which I should be able to use without being limited to X amount per month. Think lanes in a highway, not gas in a car. The lane I’ve bought is mine. I pay for its use and maintenance each month. It has nothing to do with how much I drive on it each month.

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    2. ISPs have admitted that the data caps are not about network management. If they were, there are way better ways to implement a management plan. Caps are about optimizing revenue. So if that’s the case, then we need to have a conversation about consumer rights, especially given the lack of competition in last mile broadband, the complexity of network management by consumers and the increase in the number of devices that have a very “beta” mentality.

      Which is exactly what I wrote.

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  2. Kyle Hardin Monday, June 30, 2014

    My isp would have just said “sorry, you now owe us $9,120 in overage charges.

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  3. Let me know how to sign up for the GigaOM ISP service (with no data costs/caps) so my dozens of misbehaving gizmos can go about their merry idiocy without me being responsible.

    And please hurry before your business model collapses.

    I’m no fan of ISP services in the US but I don’t see any economic reality behind your claim that the ISP is responsible for a gadget they neither promoted nor sold. It creates all sorts of perverse incentives for really bad behavior.

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    1. Kyle Hardin Monday, June 30, 2014

      But ISPs are selling something: bandwidth. They’re allowing you a set amount of throughput on their network connection that you are paying for in full. If you pay for 6mbps of throughput, you should be able to use 6mbps of throughput, because that’s the amount of the connection you are paying for. ISPs have been fooling us into thinking of internet traffic as a set quantity, like it can somehow run out if we all use too much of it in a month. This silly notion allows them to levy stiff fees and low bandwidth caps that brings them more revenue on top of the network costs we are already paying for. Do you know what happens when we all use our connections too frequently? Congestion. It doesn’t drain the ISPs bank account and it doesn’t result in damage to the network. It just slows things down. And network connection means that the ISP is overselling their network and making you pay for an amount of bandwidth that they are not providing. This is not Amazon’s fault. This is not the content provider’s fault or the consumer’s fault. This is the ISPs responsibility to provide the service that they are promising to provide. These are not small companies. The Verizons and Comcasts of the world are getting fat by overcharging consumers and putting minimum effort into maintaining their networks. When their networks underperform, they receive government funds to build out their networks, which they then pocket at the tax payer’s expense. Claiming that an ISP doesn’t have to support a gadget that they neither promoted or sold is ignoring the fact that every ISP is providing a service at a profit. They want us to feel spoiled for asking them to hold up their end of the deal and charge us extra for it.

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      1. @Kyle Hardin wrote, “ISPs are selling something: bandwidth.”

        No, sorry, you are probably paying for gigabytes, with a cap on how much you can actually retrieve per second, a cap that might be dramatically cut during hours that your neighbors ALSO want a pretty fast stream.

        Doesn’t matter if you’re D/l’ing your own Dropbox stuff at 2–5am (when there’s essentially zero marginal (extra) cost to your ISP, or struggling hopelessly thru a stuttering movie at 8pm on a Friday night — your contract isn’t for what you want (enough bandwidth that, with a bit of buffering, your movie plays smoothly, and you can play one exactly as many times as you want without paying a penny more than you have to).

        Not to disagree one iota with the reasonableness of what you want, but you’re expecting to go to McDonalds and to have some first-class sushi. That’s NOT what they sell.

        No intelligent person should be confused. You might think a fish witch is an OK alternative, but it’s what they have to sell, not what you were hoping for.

        I never see business people confused about this, nor, for that matter, actual net experts. Outraged, perhaps, at the hidden and explicit costs of getting what they want, but never so wrong as to misstate what they fork over $39/month for—that’s $500/year, buckaroo, year after year.

        I’d be tickled punk for you to reply with a link to your ToS that prove me wrong, and you should be, too: making false promises is fraud, and you ought to be able to win some sweet concessions, maybe a monster class action judgement, if you can show they intentionally misrepresented what they took your money for.

        But I won’t be holding my breath.

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        1. Couldn’t agree more with @WaltFrench when he says, “I never see business people confused about this, nor, for that matter, actual net experts.” As I stated in my first post at the top, as a consumer, I want everything for free, but as someone who has been in broadband and Internet-based services for 20 years, the harsh reality is that broadband costs, despite what Stacey says. Consumer Rights? Uhh, we all have the right to choose another ISP. It’s not like Comcast is government monopoly taking away our right to eat, sleep, and send our kids to school. It’s a business. They will charge what the market will accept. Vote with your pocketbook.

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  4. If your car is not working properly and uses up all fuel in 30 minutes, would your petrol station be responsible for it and thus have to refill your tank free of charge?
    It is very disappointing having such a well versed tech writer spreading this kind of biased messages: it calls into question your impartiality

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  5. Bob Frankston Tuesday, July 1, 2014

    I won’t go into the many misconceptions beyond concepts like caps but simply point out that one of the consequences of such policies is that those dependent upon “cloud services” can find themselves disconnected for reasons that seem, and are, perverse..

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  6. Or you could just tell developers to do their job, you know, since optimization is the least of their concern, which is BTW an environmental disaster…

    Look at Facebook developers. They went to Africa, came back and said “it’s high time we optimize the app which is eating like a giant monster”. They did it because of business. It took a few days but they wouldn’t have done it if they had not seen it was a business problem in Africa.

    Let’s make a new law: companies should be held responsible for non-optimizing software, which ruins networks, user experience and the planet.

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  7. It’s kind of sad to see all the supposed consumers posting on here defending ISP’s right to rip them off. If network congestion really is a problem due to certain users overloading the system, it would be very easy to throttle those users’ connections past a certain amount of data usage, rather than charging overage fees or forcing those users to higher bandwidth tiers. Instead of choosing the consumer-friendly approach, they choose the cash grab, and why wouldn’t they, considering most operate in a monopoly/duopoly non-competitive environment.

    And the argument, “how can they possibly be profitable if some users are maxing out their bandwidth” is patently ridiculous. ISPs are some of the most profitable companies out there, and overage charges are just piling more on top. Look at Google Fiber: 1Gbps with no caps at $70/month, profitable, and yet no ISP offered anything near that deal prior to Google Fiber showing up. Now facing real competition, these same ISPs that couldn’t possibly offer anything like that before are suddenly offering their own gigabit service at reasonable prices. Huh, funny how that works.

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  8. Imagine how ridiculous the headline of this blog post would look if it read “Amazon Fire TV bug provides another reason why paying for what you use is anti-consumer”.
    Well that’s exactly what the blogger is suggesting in this bizarre opinion piece where she calls being able to buy what you use a cap, and labels a policy of not forcing all customers to pay some greatest common denominator price regardless of usage or household size as “anti-consumer”.
    Good luck pushing this collectivist ideology forward. I could be wrong but I think you’re in for more frustration, but at least you’ll still have under-informed populist nonsense to generate page views to put food on your table, and that’s far cheaper to produce than fact based discourse that one has no qualifications or knowledge to write accurately about, not that this blog exists to make money, because that would be evil, like those greedy ISPs who are out to get you.

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  9. Bear in mind that Internet data, unlike water, gas, electricity, etc. isn’t a resource. You don’t have giant plants generating gigabytes for consumption. The wholesale cost of moving 1 GB of data across the Internet backbone is around 0.3c at the moment. 5 years ago, it was around 1,5c.
    Data caps are just another money grab for the ISPs and a way for them to get around upgrading their networks while grabbing obscene amounts of money. My (monopoly) ISP charges $1.50 per 1 GB overage. They already have some of the most expensive fees in the country ($58 for basic cable anyone?) and milk yet more money out of anyone going over their 150 GB cap. There is no justification for it. It’s sad to see so many apologists falling for this.
    It’s interesting that at my house in the US, I’m stuck with this expensive monopoly. At my place in the UK, I have a choice of 8 different providers and get 50 Mbps cable Internet with no data caps for the equivalent of $36 per month. Amazing what a bit of competition can do.

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  10. Seems to me there is an opportunity for the ISPs to provide a lowcost service to subscribers that analyzes their data usage and suggests ways to reduce waste and improve speeds. Or maybe the service even proactively makes adjustments to consumer devices in the household to accomplish this, like the utilities do with smart meters to reduce consumer electric bills.

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