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The Pulpit
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Weekly Column

How Much is Enough?: Comcast finds a new way to kill peer-to-peer.

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By Robert X. Cringely

The Pulpit Poll

Is 250 gigabytes per month enough bandwidth for your family?

Yes: For now it looks fine.
No: If Comcast holds the line we'll be bandwidth starved in four years.

Skip this one and see results

While to regular readers this may seem an odd time of the week to see a new column from me, get used to it, because I’m deliberately increasing the frequency of I, Cringely columns to something greater than one per week yet still possibly less than two. In part this is my response to having more than ever to say. It’s also an attempt to create more opportunities for you to view the ads we don’t run. But the one thing this IS NOT is a knee-jerk response to the fact that Hurricane Hanna is right now bearing down on my home in Charleston, South Carolina, determined to drown us sometime on Friday. Even without Hanna to inspire me, you’d still be reading this column today.

What has me riled up earlier in the week than usual is Comcast’s decision to limit its customers, which might include me (more on that later), to no more than 250 gigabytes of total bandwidth per month. Other pundits have called it “the end of the open Internet” and a betrayal. But I’m not so sure.

When I started writing this column in 1997 my Internet connection was a business DSL line from Covad rated at 384 kilobits per second for both uploads and downloads. And in the fine print of that agreement 11 years ago the account had a maximum download limit of 3 gigabytes per month. I know this for sure because I violated the limit several times and was penalized for it by Covad, which charged something like $4 for every gigabyte in excess of the limit.

So was there ever a truly wide-open Internet? Not for me.

Of course in 1997 dial-up was still the norm and V.90 modems were the bomb at 50-60 kilobits per second if line conditions allowed. If you take that nominal 56 kbps and multiply it out, what we were buying was about 18 gigabytes of DOWNLOAD POTENTIAL per month. Nobody could use all of that, of course. Or rather nobody could use exactly that amount because you’d have to take a gulp of digital air from time to time, pumping white space into the pipe. In fact the maximal duty cycle expected of even the most strenuously exercised dial-up connection back then was about 15 percent, which worked out to around 2.7 gigabytes per month — remarkably close to the 3-gigabyte limit I had at Covad.

So what I was buying from Covad back then was a faster pipe, sure, but in a sense not a larger one. We were, after all, mining diamonds of data, not coal.

My 384 kbps could have technically allowed me to pump up to 124 gigabytes per month if I could have figured how to do that at the time using my 386-90 PC.

So how does this relate to what Comcast — America’s largest broadband ISP — is trying to do now by limiting its customers to a total upload and download of 250 gigabytes of data per month? The new number is more than 80 times my old limit but only twice my old pumping potential. The new limit would be comparable, then, if my 2008 Internet connection was 80 times as fast as my 1997 Internet connection.

Is it? That’s hard to say.

I’m a Comcast customer and know how fast my Internet connection is, but if I were just a prospective customer, all I’d get from the Comcast web site is that their cable modem is “4X faster than DSL.” Where Comcast used to give you a number like 3, 4, or even 5 megabytes per second, now all they claim to be is four times faster than DSL.

Yeah, but WHAT DSL? Which version?

I think they must mean the old 1.5M/128K DSL of days of yore, and which pretty much nobody has today.

To be 30 times faster than my old Covad DSL my current Comcast connection would have to run at 11.5 megabits-per-second, but it doesn’t. My Comcast Small Business Internet link runs at 8 megabits down and 2 megabits up for which I pay what seems to me to be too much money, though I do get five static IP addresses in the mix. Most Comcast residential customers get about 5 megabits down and 1 megabit up, but they pay less than I do.

Now we probably have enough data to come to some conclusions. That 250 gigabytes per month is a lot of data (Comcast claims it is enough for 99 percent of its customers), but it isn’t proportionally as much as I got from Covad back in 1997 (for just about the same price, I might add). That means this 250-gigabyte limit actually IS a limit and Comcast is not being as generous as it could be.

Still, there are many unanswered questions here, and my discussions with Comcast suggest they don’t yet have all the answers, either. For one, as a Comcast Small Business customer, am I even held to the 250-gigabyte residential Internet limit? Comcast doesn’t know. The bandwidth limit is for consolidated uploads and downloads, but does it include Comcast extra-cost services like VoIP phone service? Comcast doesn’t know.

This feels to me like a trial balloon. Eventually I’m sure we’ll learn that Comcast phone service and Comcast Video-On-Demand movie downloads are excluded from the limit. Go over your limit renting from NetFlix and you’ll be punished, but not if you are renting from Comcast.

It’s all about TV and movies, you know, and what if cable TV as we know it dies and is replaced entirely by digital downloads?

If that’s the case we can make a similar calculation coming from a different direction. How much bandwidth capability would we need if cable did die? Say the average house has two TVs, one is running four hours per day and the other two hours. Say HD downloads require 2 megabits per second, which is actually quite an aggressive number assuming H.264 compression. How much bandwidth would those two TVs suck up in a month? It looks to me like 162 gigabytes, which is within the 250-gigabyte maximum, but just barely.

What Comcast has done here is draw a line in the sand that it thinks it can justify. They are trying to change the game with DSL from one of comparing download speeds. And while Comcast seems to allow its customers just barely enough bandwidth to survive in the radically changed environment of a no-cable world, that’s only the case if peer-to-peer file transfer technologies such as BitTorrent aren’t used.

Comcast doesn’t say so, but these new rules effectively kill P2P in the long run, that is unless Comcast somehow sanctions that P2P, calling it Comcast P2P.

And THAT’s what this is really all about.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [OPEN] read all comments (2) | add a comment

i believe comcast has also quit carrying news as in usenet, even the non-binary ones

mja | Oct 15, 2008 | 12:16AM

This kind of stuff had been going on in Canada for quite some time. Bell first introduced DSL caps back in 2000 I believe. 10GB/mth at fist split into 5up and 5down, then merged together as a combined amount. I remember maxing it every single month it existed. They turned it off after a few months probably due to complaints, but the trend was set. Now we in Canada have those limits on nearly every net connection.
Personally I view limits like these as the cost of doing business. What we need is some actual competition in the ISP world instead of the existing Telcos making it next to impossible for anyone else to get in the game

Nebular | Nov 23, 2008 | 10:44AM
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