Thursday, March 15, 2007

Cable Broadband: "All You Can Eat" means "All We Want You To Eat"

Broadband providers promote their services by telling you about how great it is to be online all the time, uploading and downloading large files without headaches, getting music and video online, chatting in fabulous clear video with your pals in Tokyo (you do have pals in Tokyo, don't you?) and so on. Cable providers, in particular, emphasize how much better their bandwidth is than DSL.

What they don't say: just don't do too much of that, okay?

Amanda Lee of Cambridge received a call from Comcast Corp. in December ordering her to curtail her Web use or lose her high-speed Internet connection for a year.

Lee, who said she had been using the same broadband connection for years without a problem, was taken aback. But when she asked what the download limit was, she was told there was no limit, that she was just downloading too much.

Then in mid-February, her Internet service was cut off without further warning.

Let's be clear about two things: first, this doesn't affect many people; in the Boston Globe article quoted above, a Comcast spokeswoman says that only 0.01% of their household customers fall into the troublesome heavy user category. Second, it's a legitimate concern: providers design their pricing models and infrastructure plans around expected usage, and people using more can cause them trouble.

But... is it too much to expect to know what the limits are? Apparently so:

Feddeman declined to say where Comcast draws the line on too much Internet usage, instead saying the amount of data that could trigger a warning call would be roughly the equivalent of 13 million e-mail messages or 256,000 photos a month. Although those files vary in size, a typical photo file size is 1 to 2 megabytes, meaning that excessive users are downloading hundreds of gigabytes per month.

It's not hard to understand why Comcast is keeping quiet about the real limits. While the obvious solution to this is tiers of service with extra charges for heavier use, that would require something they don't seem to have: a good system for measuring it all that ties into the billing system. Billing systems are the back-office nightmare of telecom; creating such a system is a significant investment.

So, if they tell people what the limits are, they need to measure and bill appropriately, and frankly, it's cheaper to just go after a tiny number of heavy users.

Not smarter, of course; these are excellent customers from whom a provider could make money. But after being threatened and cut off, even if Comcast figures out how to offer tiers of broadband service, I doubt Ms. Lee will be signing up with them.

(I can't help but wonder if, as cable operators start providing mobile phone service, if the same principle will apply to free nights and weekend. "Sorry, they're not that free!")

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