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Comcast’s moral obligation: If you cap it, at least help us count it


Last week, Comcast made public its longstanding-but-secret bandwidth cap. Starting Oct. 1, residential users have a maximum bandwidth usage of 250 gigabytes. The cable Internet provider has always moved against users who used excessive amounts of bandwidth, but it never really said just what constituted excessive.

Comcast SucksComcast executives say this will affect very few users — less than 1 percent, they claim — and so the masses need not worry. Most folks use 2-3 gigabytes in a month, they say.

But here’s the thing: How do you know how much you use? At this writing, Comcast doesn’t make any effort to let you see how much traffic you send and receive. If the company can monitor it, the information is obviously available. Why won’t they share it with their customers?

If Comcast is going to cap bandwidth, it has a moral obligation to tell those who pay for its service how much they are using. This is particularly true given the consequences Comcast has laid out for those who go over the cap. The first time, you’ll get a warning call. The second time, you lose access for a year. That’s a essentially the death penalty for the customer’s relationship with Comcast, because anyone who gets cut off is going to seek an alternative and probably won’t be back.

The company’s FAQ on the cap basically tells its customers to do a Google search for bandwidth-metering software, an attitude I think is dismissive and almost insulting. And there are several problems with this approach.

Most bandwidth meters install on individual machines. If you’ve got a home network, you must keep track of the usage of multiple computers. And what about devices other than personal computers that also connect to your network, such as Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones, TiVos, Apple TV, game consoles, even Chumby?

There are some routers that can measure bandwidth, but they’re few and far between at the moment (though I bet this will change quickly). Some routers can be updated with third-party firmware to provide bandwidth measurement tools, but the average user isn’t going to have the slightest clue about this.

And even if you measure with your tools, how do you know that you’re seeing the same thing as Comcast? If your bandwidth meter shows you used 150 GB last month, but Comcast says it was 260 GB, will you have any credibility in an appeal (presuming there are avenues for appeal)?

No, the best, simplest and fairest method is for Comcast to make its measurement tools and data available to its customers. You should be able to sign in to your account on Comcast’s Web site and see how much bandwidth you’ve used in the last month. Ideally, there should be historical data as well. If cell-phone companies can do this with minutes used on its customer account pages, then Comcast can surely get this working on its site.

Indeed, something like this may be coming. In my original post on the cap, I cited a Twitter conversation with Comcast’s Frank Eliason, in which he indicated a measurement tool is being tested.

Enforcing a cap without allowing people to see how much bandwidth is being consumed is not just inconvenient to customers, it’s flat-out wrong. By the time Oct. 1 rolls around, Comcast needs to make it right.

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