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July 28, 2011
Data Caps Killed My Internet Redux
I’ve been reading the commentary of Andrew Vrignaud highlighted in Joe Hodnicki’s July 25,2011 post A New Genre: ISP Data Cap Policy Killed My Internet. Many major ISPs introduced data caps over the last few years. AT&T, one of the latest, limits customers without U-verse to 150 GB and 250 GB with. Comcast, the subject of Vrignaud’s ire, has a 250 GB cap. I’m both sympathetic and concerned as to how data caps will affect consumption, not just now, but in the future. See, for example, Broadband Caps: Maybe It's Not Just About TV, by Stacey Higginbotham in Bloomberg Business Week. She suggests that one reason for data caps is to force consumers to consider limiting their bandwidth use as they play on the Internet. Another point she raises is how these limits could affect innovation down the line as new, useful, technologies come into play. Vrignaud mentions the same issue in one of his posts. But that gets ahead of the issue at hand, which is Vrignaud getting kicked off his Comcast consumer Internet account.
Comcast banned him from the system for one year for using more than his allotted 250 GB per month bandwidth on multiple occasions. His initial conversations with the company do not read as the best examples of customer interaction. Vrignaud is annoyed that his Internet access is cut off. Comcast comes off as formally disinterested in his problems other than the fact that he violated the data cap rules. What led this to happen? As Vrignaud writes:
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’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.
I pretty much agree that when it comes to how people use the Internet, Vrignaud is ahead of the curve in taking advantage of all the convenience it has to offer. I can also understand how Comcast doesn’t think he is worth the $60 per month as a customer. Booting him or people like him off the system is not likely going to affect the stock prices. Vrignaud is not eligible for a Comcast Business plan (one without data caps) because he doesn’t have a tax ID and he still falls under the one year ban from the system. The lack of competition in his area prevents him from signing up with a provider that allows him to use the Internet in the way he wants.
I don’t believe regulatory environment is conducive to addressing problems such as his, at least at this time. The FCC rules on net neutrality pretty much allow hard data caps in the name of network management. The viability of those rules is still facing litigation with past precedent indicating that the FCC does not have the power to regulate the Internet. It’s also unlikely that Congress will give the FCC that power any time soon. Congress these days can’t even figure out if it wants to commit economic suicide. The United Nations has called Internet access a human right, though I doubt that would sway anyone in the government to act accordingly. We can’t get in the way of conducting business.
Vrignaud plays up the angle that the Internet is something akin to a public utility such as having access to electricity or water. I agree in the sense that when I run all the spigots in my house the water company charges me accordingly. The same happens if I run electric cords to my neighbor’s house and let the juice run wild. My power company is more than happy to hit me with a bill that reflects that kind of use. Comcast should do the same. Make money off the guy. AT&T for example, automatically gives an additional 50 GB for $10 when exceeding its cap, like it or not. Comcast can come up with its own rates which may or may not discourage someone like Vrignaud from exceeding 250 GB per month.
There will be a point in time where using cloud computing will impact more users. I don’t believe we are there yet, and I think that companies such as Comcast know it. That’s why Vrignaud is the exception rather than the rule for most consumers and their Internet access. The rise of Netflix and other streaming sites do not exacerbate the networks as much as it offers opportunities to monetize traffic beyond the monthly subscription. Consumer cloud services will do the same. ISPs will adjust their rates (no doubt higher) to accommodate that kind of use when it gets to the mainstream. It’s just good business. There may even be rates that accommodate uploading three terabytes of data. [MG]