Comcast, Caps, and the Public Interest

While I try to keep postings on this site to the subject of publicly owned networks, I think it important to discuss the ways in which some major carriers routinely flout the public interest. Thus, a little history on how Comcast has acted against the public interest.

Most of the readers of this blog are probably aware that Comcast has been dinged by the FCC following its practice of interfering with subscribers legal content (and undoubtedly illegal content as well) by blocking and disrupting the BitTorrent traffic. BitTorrent is frequently used to transfer large media files because it efficiently breaks large files into many little pieces, allowing the user to download from a variety of sources concurrently - the file is then reassembled.

When Comcast detected BitTorrent connections, it would effectively hang up on them, regardless of the congestion level on the network at the time. The FCC (the Bush Administration's FCC) said it couldn't do that and Comcast is currently in the courts trying to tell the FCC that it can't tell Comcast what it can't do on its network.

Prior to a journalistic investigation that proved Comcast was doing this, net geeks had repeated asked Comcast if it were blocking the BitTorrent protocol. Comcast never admitted to anything, often claiming it did not "block" anything... as time would go on, Comcast would refuse to admit it was blocking anything - as if permanently delaying traffic was anything other than a blockage. "I'm not blocking you, try back in 20 million years."

Around this time, Comcast quietly changed its policy regarding the maximum amount of bandwidth subscribers could consume in a month. At the time, I thought it was a result of the FCC cracking down on the arbitrary policies frequently used by cable companies, but it turns out we can thank the State of Florida for forcing Comcast to enact a transparent cap on monthly usage.

Prior to the official cap, there was an unofficial cap. Every month, some number of people would be notified they were kicked off Comcast's service for using too much bandwidth - but no one knew how much was too much and, perhaps more importantly, how to keep track of how much bandwidth they were using. Discussions on geek-hangout Slashdot suggested a monthly cap of between 100 Gigabytes and 300 Gigabytes depending on the neighborhood. There was no limit documented anywhere and Comcast representatives refused to acknowledge any hard cap.

In stepped Florida's Attorney General, who reached an agreement with Comcast to create a transparent cap and fined them for their actions.

It turns out that Comcast's "network management" strategy was to take the top 1000 subscribers who used the most bandwidth over a month and disconnect them. Harold Feld had the best reaction:

Comcast is almost certainly telling the truth when it says the highest 1000 users were atypically intense bandwidth consumers. duh. Of course the top 1000 out of 14.4 million will be at the high end of the curve.

No, the more interesting question is what the hell kind of a system is it where Comcast simply goes after the top 1000 users no matter how much they actually use, and why Comcast would adopt such a policy if it wants to reasonably manage network congestion? It seems rather . . . inefficient and arbitrary. Unless, of course, one is trying to save money running a crappy network and generally discourage high-bandwidth use.

Now Comcast has a transparent cap - 250 GB/month - that we still have no way of really knowing how close we come to it (nearly all of us don't come close). Was that so hard? Apparently. Meanwhile, they keep claiming that network neutrality requirements would leave them unable to exercise reasonable network management. How would they even know what reasonable network management is?

Though defining the public interest may be difficult, it is easy to show what is against the public interest: Comcast calls you and tells you that you have to use less bandwidth each month. You ask how much you can use and they say they cannot tell you but you need to use less.

Fortunately, we now know how much is too much. If only we could tell how much we were using...

Photo used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Titanas on flickr.