Comcast, Other Carriers Race to the Bottom of Bandwidth, Blaming Customers

Last Updated Sep 2, 2008 5:22 AM EDT

Amber lightDSL Reports broke the story that Comcast is implementing a 250GB monthly bandwidth cap on residential users, starting October 1. Lots of consumers are grumbling, and some questioning whether they can trust the company to even fairly meter the traffic flow. But Comcast -- and its competitors -- will push on for two reasons. One is that they can't satisfy investor expectations of growing profits, and the other is that for years they have promised service that their infrastructure can't deliver.
It appears that right now, the primary goal is simply putting a very clear number on Comcast's long-standing glass ceiling. That should please those customers who've been complaining about this invisible cap for years.
Heaven knows that Comcast has been trying other ways to lighten the data load. The FCC reprimanded the company last month for slowing traffic to users who download a lot.
"Comcast was delaying subscribers' downloads and blocking their uploads. It was doing so 24/7, regardless of the amount of congestion on the network or how small the file might be," [FCC chairman Kevin Martin] said. "Even worse, Comcast was hiding that fact by making affected users think there was a problem with their Internet connection or the application. Today, the commission tells Comcast to stop."
Comcast appears to be determined, and others are taking note, with some cable companies experimenting with tiered use pricing.

One reason Comcast is so determined to establish limits becomes clear when you look at the company's stock price, which hit a high in January 2007 and has been generally in the doldrums since. Investors like growth, but the Internet industry has had a problem. If a company only offers bandwidth as a service, can't easily raise its rates, and allows everyone to have as much as they want, revenue growth is elusive.

On the other side of the equation are the steadily growing traffic demands of the users. Although Comcast argues that its current limits are astronomical compared to what a normal person might need these days, you can't measure the Internet at current numbers alone, and you can't expect the public to be conscientiously moderate when new technology and services will put increasing pressure on net traffic:

In the coming years, as users start to download HD movies en masse, and to watch a ton of Web video, even the Comcast cap -- a cap that seems ample today -- may not seem so high. A growing percentage of users may have to curb their online activities. And that's bad news for Web businesses such as those pushing bandwidth-thirsty videos: Think YouTube, Netflix and Joost. Consumer groups hint that the usage cap could eventually curb innovation on the Internet; and, unless Comcast and other providers agree to eventually bump up their usage cap, I tend to agree with that view.
The irony is that the focus of attention on bandwidth, particularly when Comcast is telling users to download traffic monitors to check their own usage, could backfire. As one comment on the BusinessWeek piece noted:
I don't think I'm in danger, but after 6 hours of trying the program, Comcast could be if enough people try it. In spite of their years of advertising that they were faster than DSL, the window showing upload/download speeds shows that the max speeds attained are slightly less than that of standard DSL, and are only 15-20% of what Comcast claims to offer.
Now we're squarely at the other reason for the carriers to put a lid on usage: their network capacity is not large enough to handle the data they suggest they can, and doesn't seem to be working, according to Google's Vint Cerf.

As usage increases, their networks become ever more inadequate. But what are they going to do, accept responsibility? No, it's so much easier to blame the customers and sweep under the rug that you've not delivered for years what you've led people to believe they were getting.Amber light image via Flickr user greefus groinks, CC 2.0.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.