Comcastic Adventures: Capping Your Bandwidth

By now, you’ve all heard about the FCC slapping Comcast’s wrists for engaging in data discrimination; it’s simply been required to disclose its current and future “network management” practices, under penalty of…nothing, really. Both Comcast and those who called for the FCC to act on its shady attempts at subverting network neutrality are appealing the FCC’s decision.
We’ve already covered Comcast’s history of opaque and unreliable service, especially when it comes to crippling your e-mail. Comcast’s initial response to the FCC ruling has been the announcement of a 250 gigabyte per-month usage cap on all residential users, effective next month, with extra-special throttling on the most intensive users at any given time (to be determined at Comcast’s discretion).
I, of course, called Comcast tech support to find out if the company had any plans of offering me any sort of tool to know how much bandwidth I’d used over the course of any given month – I mean, if you’re going to offer what is essentially metered usage, you should at least have the courtesy to make a meter available for customers to check themselves. Electric utilities and cell-phone companies provide this service as a matter of course, and if Comcast is already so finely-grained in network management practices, providing this service should be a piece of cake, no?
Unfortunately, no, the Comcast rep told me, the company does not plan on letting you know how much bandwidth you’re using until you’ve busted the magic cap – then, you get a threatening phone call. Do it again and your service will be terminated for at least a year.
While I was holding on the phone, I stumbled upon Om Malik, who’s already thinking in this direction, and has compiled a handy list of client-side bandwidth-meters to check out (in order to gauge just how easy it might be to bust various companies’ bandwidth caps). Make sure to note the comments in this particular post for other bandwidth-meters available.
These programs won’t give you an exact reading of your bandwidth usage (no company has yet disclosed just how they will define “usage”), and your ISP’s monitoring software and cycle is likely to differ from yours. But some information is better than none, especially in the case. I gave my new Comcast friend the link, too, so he could pass it along to other customers, for whatever that will be worth.
Now, I know 250 gigabytes is a lot – the server on which this site runs has a bandwidth allocation of 800 gigabytes per month, and even with ~20 gigs of audio/visual content online it’s an outlier-month when visitors eat more than two thirds of that. But as the Internet grows, so does the complexity and richness of its applications – it is the future utility of the Internet which is endangered by bandwidth caps set in the here and now.
And unlike this site’s hosting provider, I doubt Comcast will raise caps to meet the innovation of new applications – they’ll just charge more for the artificial scarcity that already exists in their network. Smart broadband policy would not just cover notions of things like network neutrality; it would also encourage, by any means necessary, the construction of a 21st century telecommunications infrastructure – not just the hacks and patches everyone (save Verizon and municipal fiber projects) is currently peddling as “next generation” Internet access.
It was a sad day when I finally locked down my wireless connection, because Comcast’s new policy makes my bandwidth something I now need to guard instead of share. I can’t wait for the days when students tell me they couldn’t finish their papers because they ran of bandwidth for the month.