Bandwidth Cap Worries

by on August 30, 2008 · 15 comments

Susan Crawford worries about the implications of Comcast’s bandwidth cap:

Comcast sees a future in which people use the internet to send a few emails or look at a few web pages. They don’t want people watching HD content from other sources online, because that doesn’t fit their business model. So rather than increase capacity, they’d rather lower expectations. 250GB/month is about 50-60 HD movies a month, but we’re not necessarily going to be watching movies. Maybe we’ll be doing constant HD video sessions with other freelancers, or interacting with big groups all over the world in real-time. Who knows what we’ll be doing – it’s all in the future.

But rather than build towards a user-powered future, Comcast wants to shape that future — in advance — in its own image. The company is not offering additional bandwidth packages to people who want more. They just want to be able to shut service off at a particular point – a point of bandwidth use that most people aren’t using right now, so that they won’t be unhappy. By the time we all want to be doing everything online, Comcast users (the company hopes) won’t expect anything better.

There are several observations to make here. In the first place, there isn’t an either-or choice between building more capacity and limiting current users. Comcast is doing both. They’re upgrading to DOCSIS 3.0 at the same time they’re experimenting with new usage limits. Obviously, the ideal situation is when capacity upgrades are sufficient to accommodate increased demand. But if it’s not, network owners have to do something about it. A high and transparent bandwidth cap isn’t a terrible approach.

Second, this cap really is quite high. 250 GB/month is roughly 1 Mbps for every waking hour, or 10 Mbps (which is faster than my current broadband connection) for about 2 hours a day. Her estimate of 50-60 HD movies a month sounds high to me, but certainly there’s enough bandwidth there to download more HD movies than the average family watches in a month.

Third, there’s absolutely no reason to think that this cap is permanent, or that they won’t give consumers reasonable options to get more bandwidth. Comcast is in business to make money. There’s lots of valuable content on the Internet. Therefore, it’s in Comcast’s interest to sell consumers the bandwidth they need to access the Internet content they want. Now, Comcast might charge more for a really high-speed, high-cap Internet access plan. That’s their right, and I’m at a loss to see why it would be a problem. Infrastructure upgrades cost money. It’s only fair to charge the most to the people who use the infrastructure the most. Provided that users do have the option to access the content they want, I fail to see what the problem is.

Finally, Crawford is upset that usage of Comcast’s digital voice service isn’t counted against the cap. But VoIP uses so little bandwidth that as a practical matter, this will matter very little. More to the point, if Crawford is worried about Comcast dedicating bandwidth to its own proprietary services, I’ve got a much bigger target for her to worry about: cable television. Comcast’s cable service has been sucking up bandwidth that could have otherwise gone to Internet connectivity for decades. Does Crawford think it’s unethical for Comcast to offer traditional cable television service? If not, then how is offering dedicated bandwidth to Comcast’s VoIP offering any different?

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