Broadband in America: Freedom of Choice?

About a year ago, I dumped my AT&T DSL connection in favor of our local cable broadband provider, Insight Communications. I did so because AT&T failed to follow through on one of its promises made when it bought BellSouth – that customers could receive discounted, DSL-only service (without the need to have phone service bundled in). Needless to say, I was very happy to leave the orbit of the Death Star, and even happier to have a locally-accessible alternative.
You can imagine my dismay when I read last spring that Comcast declared its intent to buy out Insight, and recently I received a letter in the mail informing me that I would officially become a Comcast customer in short order.
Although AT&T may be bureaucratically and technically inept, Comcast is the most aggressively arrogant of the broadband-trust bunch. For example, the company’s instituted mysterious “bandwidth caps” on users who use “too much” of their connections, and has now been conclusively indicted in the court of public opinion for interfering with and/or cutting off the connections of customers who use applications Comcast doesn’t like, such as peer-to-peer and video-streaming software – even business-friendly applications like Lotus Notes.
So, upon formal notice that I was now, for all intents and purposes, another one of Comcast’s bitches, I called the company’s customer support system (1-800-COMCAST) to ask three simple questions:
1. What is the “mystery bandwidth cap” which I must not exceed to lose my service?
2. Can I use peer-to-peer software on my Comcast connection if I am using it for legitimate purposes, such as sharing music I made myself that has no copyright?
3. Will Comcast’s terms of service prohibit me from publicly disparaging the company at the risk of losing my Internet connection, as AT&T has previously tried to do?
My first call to Comcast got me transferred to six different departments, none of whom could answer my questions. Upon the sixth transfer, I was put into Comcast’s “circular hold” file, where I waited for ~30 minutes before hanging up.
I called again. This time I was only transferred twice, to someone in “Internet tech support,” who informed me that, indeed, the use of peer-to-peer and other software is prohibited on Comcast’s network. My specific question was, “If I use peer-to-peer software to share information that is NOT copyrighted, can you put a notation on my account or something to stop your network security people from resetting or otherwise interfering with my connection?” The Comcast representative’s answer was, “No.” So I followed up: “Does this explicitly mean that the use of such software is prohibited on your network?” The answer: “Yes.”
This is new: in the past, Comcast has publicly reserved the right to “shape” or “throttle” network traffic in order to reduce “network congestion,” but this is the first I’ve heard of a Comcast rep telling a customer NOT to use peer-to-peer software AT ALL.
I then asked (again) about Comcast’s mystery bandwidth cap. And again, I was transferred several times, eventually to a woman who told me there WAS a cap, but she didn’t know what it was, especially since I was a newly-assimilated Comcast customer. This leads me to believe that Comcast’s bandwidth cap is variable, depending on which portion/region of Comcast’s network you’re connected to, and whether or not that portion of their network is robust enough to handle heavy traffic.
Finally, I asked the woman if she could answer a terms-of-service question. She told me to hold again – and then hung up on me.
Comcast and AT&T are not alone in shredding Internet freedom so blatantly now: Time-Warner is trial-testing metered bandwidth usage, and Verizon and Qwest aren’t exactly friendly to the principle of network neutrality, either. At a time in our nation’s history when “freedom of choice” has been conflated to something akin to a Constitutional right, the country’s broadband environment belies the hype.