Today I came home to find my 15 MB down/3 MB up Comcast broadband service had been shut off due to exceeding their 250 GB/month data cap policy.
This had happened the month before, and I called and had a polite but irritated conversation with Comcast's "Customer Security" department (since the regular customer service folks could not help.) According to them I had exceeded their 250 GB monthly cap, and they asked how that might have happened.
I told them the simple truth-–no idea, other than regular people were probably using it a lot for reasonable things. I have roommates, we stream Netflix HD movies and Pandora music incessantly to multiple devices in the home, and I also have an open access point (in addition to a secured AP that I use to access internal network resources) for guests. I asked if they could share what was using the majority of the data so I could go address it directly, but Comcast refused to share any information there (which is probably appropriate).
I made very clear to the gentleman I spoke with that I thought Comcast's data cap policy was arbitrary, unfair, and extremely irritating… and that if I had any decent competitive options in the neighborhood I'd dump Comcast in a heartbeat. Since I don't, I listened to him read his canned warning that if I exceeded their cap again I'd be cut off again. I do not recall details on how long the cut off would be, likely because I spent the next few minutes working with the service agent to add notes to my record about my detailed displeasure with Comcast's policy here. I specifically noted (and asked that it be recorded) that if this happened again I would contact the FCC, various news organizations, and otherwise make a stink. The CS agent was polite and reactivated my broadband. After hanging up I chatted with my roommates, asked them to keep an eye on bandwidth use, and also deactivated the open AP I had maintained for visitors (with regret, but this was the only area I could think of that I couldn't completely account for bandwidth use.) Then I forgot about the whole thing until today when I found I'd been cut off again.
I called up Comcast and went through customer service hell – a Comcast special, I might note. First their regular customer service agent couldn't help me, and sent me to their "Customer Security" group again. The Customer Security agent was polite, and after the standard identification questions notified me I was cut off for a year due to exceeding Comcast's Acceptable Use Policy limits on their bandwidth cap. I asked for details on what had been using bandwidth, and again, Comcast would not share. In a sudden brainstorm, I then asked whether the 250 GB bandwidth cap applied to just downloads (which I had assumed, as the majority of most bandwidth used in households is downstream bandwidth), or download and upload bandwidth. Surprise, surprise! Comcast measures both upstream and downstream bandwidth – and it suddenly clicked for me.
I'm a photographer and audiophile. I shoot all of my pictures in RAW format, and I store the many hundreds and hundreds of CDs I've purchased over the last 20 years or so in a variety of lossless and lossy music formats. In the case of music I rip my CDs to WMA Lossless (for ease of streaming to Windows), FLAC (another lossless format, so I can stream losslessly to my Sonos system), and M4A (also known as Apple's iTunes AAC format, so I can import my music from the media server to iTunes). I'm a big believer in storing the original, lossless digital content so that I can access it in full fidelity in the future no matter how technology evolves. In some ways that makes me a bit archaic as I still buy (used) CDs from Amazon for all of my music so I can rip it losslessly – I'm not a fan of the compressed music formats you buy and download. But the ramification is that I have terabytes of storage in my basement RAID server – each music track is duplicated three times, I have all of my original RAW photos, plus processed JPEG versions of those RAW photos, as well as a variety of other miscellaneous content – documents, spreadsheets, that sort of thing.
This stuff is valuable to me, and I recently purchased a three-year subscription to Carbonite so I could back all of this content up to the cloud. I also recently saw Amazon's announcement of being able to upload unlimited M4A/AAC tracks to their Cloud Drive service, and decided to upload my library there so I could access it when on the road. And it turns out uploading all of this content to the cloud triggered Comcast's bandwidth cap and caused me to be cut off from the internet-–again. It was never clear to me that Comcast measures both upload and download bandwidth, and I suspect many people are going to be surprised by this in the coming years, especially as the cloud continues to become more and more a part of our lives.
Anyway, to close out the Comcast call, I asked to be reinstated and he said it was final-–no appeal. I asked to escalate to a manager so I could explain my situation, and he stated there was no escalation, and repeated there was no appeal. I then asked for customer service email or other contact information so I could CC the company on a blog post (which you are reading now) and letter I would be sending to the FCC, Public Knowledge organization, New Media Foundation, the city of Seattle's Mayor's Office, and my Seattle City Council representative. He said he could connect me to the customer escalation line, but also stated it would not help – they wouldn't consider removing the cap. At that point I said I wouldn't bother wasting my time with the customer escalation line, and that I'd like to cancel my broadband. He politely said he understood, and that he'd transfer me to the appropriate department.
Time to return to Comcast customer service hell! After a few minutes I spoke with another gentlemen in the Technical Support and Billing division I'd been transferred to who, surprise, couldn't help me since I was cancelling my (now defunct) service. He then transferred me to (wait for it!) the Retention department, since they're apparently the only ones who can cancel a Comcast cable account. Yes, after Comcast applied their ridiculous policy and told me they didn't want me as a customer, I was transferred to the Retention department where they insisted on driving through their spiel until I could finally interrupt, say it wasn't going to work, and explain my situation. At which point the agent said: "Oh. I'll take care of it, thank you for calling Comcast ." As of this moment I have no idea if I've been cancelled or not.
[Update, added July 12: To clarify, Comcast has cut my broadband with no appeal. The text above about my attempting to cancel my account was my attempt at making sure I don't get charged for a service Comcast is no longer giving me. But right now my cable modem is dead, with no signal going into it.]
My opinion on all this is simple. The ability to access broadband internet is a right, and should be defined as an essential utility. Just as you're surprised when you flick a light switch and the light doesn't come on so are you surprised when the internet goes away in your house. The internet is used for communication, entertainment, business - an entire panopoly of humor endevours. Just as there are protections to keep water and electricity flowing to your house, so should the internet be protected.
Now the broadband companies would strongly disagree with me here. They're terrified of being turned into dumb pipes that only deliver data. This is why you see such vicious fights over the definition of internet neutrality, and cable companies fighting to be able to restrict services that flow over their pipes, inspect packets, or have the right to charge more for differing levels of service. They try to spin this as protecting the integrity of the network for other customers, and not having to charge more to offer service that some small percentage of their users overuse. However, these same companies are also strangely quiet when you ask them why (as in Comcast's case) they're able to keep boosting my broadband speed tier year after year for no additional charge. Or why their quarterly filings show their cost of providing broadband service continues to drop year after year, while rates keep going up. It doesn't add up.
[Update, added July 12:: Some disagree with my opinion above. To reiterate, I believe that internet access is a right, and an essential utility that's needed in today's life. That's not supported in any legal definition in the US (though Finland recently made it a point of law, and the United Nations believes broadband access is a basic human right), but I do believe that most people would intuitively agree. Put another way, internet access long ago passed the stage of "new tech that's interesting" to "something everyone uses and assumes you have". Hence my electricity and water points – I believe internet falls in the same vein, and also think the current battles/discussions over the ability to control the internet are emblematic of that.]
Several commentators have also noted that internet access is a requirement in some states for food stamp access, to attend some (offline, not internet-only) universities, and even for VoIP over fiber in some communities. This also supports my opinion that internet access is right and should be regulated as an essential utility.]
Here's what's frightening about all this: today Comcast blocked me from using a potentially competitive music service from Amazon. Even worse, today Comcast disconnected me from the ever-evolving cloud services I use each and every day for life and work.
Amazon deserves a lot of credit for pushing the bounds on what we can do on the internet. Their recent announcement of storing unlimited music in their Cloud Drive service is a compelling alternative to Apple's iCloud solution, and one that many might choose to use-–if Comcast allows it. Are you listening Amazon?
And it gets worse-–I work as a entertainment industry consultant, and depend on cloud services such as Dropbox, Simplenote, Google Apps, and Google Docs for day to day work. I use streaming online services such as Netflix, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, and Pandora every day for both work and play. I send and receive data all the time and have never had a problem with my $60/month broadband plan until A) Comcast added their data caps, and B) I really started engaging in using new cloud-based services (meaning uploading data to those services so I could get value from them).
Comcast will try to spin this, and say 250 GB is plenty for anyone – and in fact, a large percentage of their network users today probably really don't hit this cap right now. What they don't want to say is that streaming services such as Netflix now consume a quarter of network traffic monthly, and is projected to rise – all of which impacts the cable TV services they sell.
The last report in October suggested it made up around twenty percent of internet traffic during prime time, but this time around the stats say it accounts for 30% of traffic during prime time, and 22.2% of daily internet traffic. Sandvine gets the data from ISPs using its broadband technology and now foresees "Real-Time Entertainment" (which includes Netflix) shooting up over 55% of peak internet traffic by the end of this year.
- Engadget: Study finds Netflix is the largest source of internet traffic in North America
And in the Netflix case, 99% of that data is downstream data. Comcast doesn't broadly advertise the fact that their cap also counts upload data – and I strongly believe as more and more people begin to "get" the cloud they're going to want to upload their valued data to services where they can engage with it in new and interesting ways. And until broadband is deemed an essential utility, and broadband providers like Comcast can't set an arbitrary limit and cut people off, our shared cloud-enabled future is at risk. To this end, I will be contacting various political entities in Seattle in the hope of trying to encourage either greater competition and choice in the broadband market (break Comcast's cable monopoly, and allow fiber to the home!), as well as greater investment in a citywide, city-run broadband network.
Well, first off, I'm writing this post to lay out the facts, as well as my opinion, as to the ramifications of broadband companies like Comcast being allowed to enforce data caps and cut people off from the internet. As I mentioned earlier, I will be sending a copy of this blog post to the following people and agencies:
- FCC: Sharon Gillett, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
- FCC: Chairman Julius Genachowski; Commissioner Michael Copps; Commissioner Robert McDowell; Commissioner Mignon Clyburn; Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker
- Public Knowledge Interest Group (Their letter to the FCC is here, and good reading.)
- Harold Feld, Legal Director Public Knowledge
- Sascha Meinrath, Director New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative
- City of Seattle Mayor's Office
- Tom Rassmussen, Seattle City Council Representative
- Stop the Cap!
I've also tweeted out a summary of what happened, will tweet a link to this blog post, and will also reach out to a few media folks I know in case they're interested in writing this up. I'll also be exploring what other broadband options I might have in Seattle – but thanks to Comcast's monopoly, my choices aren't great.
That said, if Qwest/CenturyLink (or any other broadband provider) wants to run fiber to my house on the top of the hill in Montlake, Seattle, and put up a broadcast antenna to serve the neighborhood – I'm in. Contact me at the links on this blog, or at andre at ozymandias.com. Seriously.
Andre Vrignaud has worked in the interactive entertainment industry for over 20 years at companies such as Intel, Microsoft Xbox, and Amazon. He currently works as an independent game industry consultant doing game, platform strategy, and media/PR consulting for a variety of firms.
This article originally ran on July 11, 2010. Republished with permission. Join the conversation about this in the comments below or at Andre's blog.
(Top photo via Shutterstock)