The era of unlimited Internet usage for a flat monthly price is one step closer to its end, as cable giant Comcast officially announced today that residential subscribers would top out at 250 gigabytes (GB) per month of data bandwith availability, beginning October 1.
The new policy, announced on Comcast's network management site, codifies the company's practice of canceling or limiting customers' access once they go over a specific amount of usage. Comcast had previously refused to disclose its caps for fear of driving customers to competitors who still offered flat-rate prices for Internet access.
"This is the same system we have in place today," Comcast said in the announcement. "The only difference is that we will now provide a limit by which a customer may be contacted. As part of our pre-existing policy, we will continue to contact the top users of our high-speed Internet service and ask them to curb their usage."
According to the company, in order to exceed a cap of 250 GB, a user would have 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)
Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas emphasized that the policy change would be "not relevant to 99 percent of our customers...only the less than 1 percent who use an extreme amount of bandwith."
"We are calling people and letting them know when they are going over the limit, and most people voluntarily moderate their usage on the first call," Douglas said. Those who continued to exceed the cap after being warned would face suspension of their account for one year, he said, "but that hasn't really been a factor...most people change their habits after the first warning. They really just wanted to know the number [of the cap]."
Douglas also emphasized that the network policy change would be advertised on several Comcast sites, including the Comcast.net customer portal, and that mailed announcements would be sent to customers along with their next bill.
Karl Bode, editor of BroadbandReports.com, was among the first to report Comcast's plans to officially cap users' bandwith. Bode told ConsumerAffairs.com that the 250 GB cap was "more than generous for the majority of users."
"For going on half a decade Comcast customers have complained that the company employed a glass ceiling limit while marketing their service as 'unlimited.'," Bode said. "When customers crossed this limit they were told they could see their connection terminated if they didn't scale back usage, but were never told how much consumption was too much. This new approach looks to simply clarify an existing but murky monthly consumption limit, and in that sense is actually good for consumers."
Several Internet providers, such as Time Warner and Frontier Cable, have been testing or implementing "metered" broadband plans, where users would pay excess usage charges if they went over a specific caps--many of which are considerably lower than Comcast's 250 GB.
Critics of metered broadband say that the plans offer too little bandwith for too high a price. Customers will shy away from using high-speed Internet's full potential, such as uploading or streaming videos, if they are afraid of going over their limits in doing so, and that companies who are supporting metered plans do so to protect their own video channels and hamstring competitors such as YouTube.
Comcast's plan was originally rumored to include charges for exceeding the bandwith cap, but the official announcement did not do so. The company had previously announced that it would employ new network management systems to slow down Internet speeds for the heaviest users in order to prevent congestion.
"While I think caps are fair if reasonable (the 5GB or even 40GB limits being tested by Time Warner Cable are absurd), I've generally been strongly opposed to the overage fee system and metered billing, given the potential for abuse by carriers looking to protect TV revenues," Bode said. "I think there's strong pressure from the investment community to begin metered billing."
Comcast's policy changes come in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s ruling penalizing the company for its blocking access to the BitTorrent file-sharing service. Under the terms of the FCC's order, Comcast must provide detailed explanations of how it will manage its networks without denying customers access to services.
Media watchdog group Free Press, which had pushed the FCC to rule against Comcast, said that while the cap was a better solution than blocking customers' access, "[i]t remains unclear how the cap announced today helps solve Comcast's supposed congestion problems -- or how the cap will work with other usage limits Comcast has been considering."
"If the United States had genuine broadband competition, Internet providers would not be able to profit from artificial scarcity -- they would invest in their networks to keep pace with consumer demand," said Free Press' research director S. Derek Turner. "Unfortunately, Americans will continue to face the consequences of this lack of competition until policymakers get serious about policies that deliver the world-class networks consumers deserve."