Comcast to Place a Cap on Internet Downloads

From today’s NY Times:

Comcast to Place a Cap on Internet Downloads

Published: August 29, 2008

Comcast, one of the country’s largest Internet providers, said this week that it would place limits on customers’ broadband usage.

Beginning Oct. 1, Comcast will put a 250 gigabyte-a-month cap on residential users. The limit will not affect most users, at least not in the short-term, but is certain to create tension as some technologies gain traction.

A Comcast spokeswoman, Jennifer Khoury, said 250 gigabytes was about 100 times the typical usage; the average customer uses two to three gigabytes a month. Less than 1 percent of customers exceed the cap, she said.

Many Internet providers reserve the right to cancel the service of the most excessive users. The 250-gigabyte cap is Comcast’s way of specifying a longstanding policy of placing a limit on Internet consumption, and it comes after customer pushed for a definition of excessive use.

But on the Internet, consumer behavior does not stand still. As the technology company Cisco stated in a report last winter, “today’s ‘bandwidth hog’ is tomorrow’s average user.”

Some commentators were quick to characterize Comcast’s decision as having a chilling effect. Om Malik, the founder of the technology Web site GigaOm, called the cap “the end of the Internet as we know it.”, a Web site about consumer broadband information, said it indicated “a significant shift in the U.S. broadband market that won’t be reversible.”

In recent months Comcast and other companies have considered clamping down on their most active subscribers, saying the limits were necessary to ensure fair access to the network for all.

Comcast’s cap does not amount to Internet metering, the charging of different prices for different broadband speeds or usage, but the change to Comcast’s policy does not rule out metering in the future.

In June, Time Warner Cable began a metering trial in one Texas city by offering various monthly plans and charging extra when consumers exceeded their bandwidth limit. AT&T has said that it is considering a similar pricing plan. The concept is not a foreign one; consumers already pay by usage for water and electricity. But broadband access has seemed unlimited, and any stifling of that is sure to concern some customers.

Until now, Comcast had not defined excessive use, but it had contacted customers who were using the heaviest amount of broadband and asked them to curb usage. Most do so willingly, the company said. The ones who do not curb their usage receive a second notice and risk having their accounts terminated.

Although the 250 gigabyte cap is now specified, users who exceed that amount will not have their access switched off immediately, nor will they be charged for excessive use. Instead, the customers may be contacted by Comcast and notified of the cap. The company did not say how 250 gigabytes was selected.

According to Comcast, a customer would have to download 62,500 songs or 125 standard-definition movies a month to exceed the caps. But high-definition video and video gaming require a higher amount of bandwidth. S. Derek Turner, the research director for the nonpartisan media policy group Free Press, said broadband caps could create a disincentive to view online video.

“As media companies put content online, consumers can bypass the cable companies and get their content directly from the Internet,” Mr. Turner said. “A 250 gigabyte cap may seem very high — and it is for today’s Internet use. But it’s essentially the equivalent of four hours of HD television a day.”

Critics have charged that Internet providers are trying to protect their cable TV and telephone businesses by stifling Internet access. Comcast says Fancast, its online video Web site, will count against the 250 gigabyte limit, but its digital voice service will not.

Comcast said there was no link between the caps, announced Thursday, and the Federal Communications Commission’s finding on Aug. 1 that the company was improperly inhibiting customers who used BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing program.

But Andrew Jay Schwartzman, the president of the Media Access Project, said the caps appeared to be a direct result of that finding. Mr. Schwartzman’s group represented Free Press in its complaint against Comcast about the file-sharing controls.

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