September 4, 2008


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Busting a cap
When too much is too much
By John “jaQ” Andrews

How much do you download in a month?

You probably have no idea. The days of paying for home Internet access by megabyte passed by long ago. Many folks in America never had an ISP that didn’t give them an “unlimited” quota of however many Web pages, e-mails and files they could download.

Get ready for a return to the bad old days.

Comcast announced last week that come Oct. 1, residential subscribers to its cable Internet service would be limited to 250GB of data transfer per month. To be sure, that’s a lot — more than 25 dual-layer DVDs or 16 installations of Windows Vista. My brand new laptop has a 250GB hard drive, and I’m certainly not planning on filling it up in 30 days.

It’s easy to paint Comcast as a villain here, but setting this hard limit wasn’t totally their choice. Comcast has long had a policy of asking subscribers to limit “excessive” usage. It just never defined what “excessive” meant until customers insisted on a hard number.

Then again, when you sign up for Internet access, should there be a limit at all? My home connection is theoretically 12 megabits per second. That speed isn’t guaranteed and is presumed to fall off when more people in my neighborhood connect, but I’ve always found my transfer speeds to be about that. At that rate, I would be able to hit 250GB in just two days of non-stop downloading. For those of you calculating at home, that’s about 1/15 of a month.

Of course no one downloads that much. Comcast itself says that fewer than 0.1 percent of its customers exceed 250GB per month. Even to do it in a week would require a solid eight hours a day of maximum bandwidth usage. Which means over a month, it only takes, hmm, two hours a day. That’s doable.

Especially if you’re downloading high-definition video. Sure, YouTube is great for that political speech you missed or the latest silly cat clip, but more and more services are offering HD content whenever you want it. Movies, television shows, online entertainment, you name it.

High-definition video? Wait, isn’t that something else Comcast sells, in the form of cable television?


Now, protecting another one of its own products isn’t the only motive Comcast could have for limiting downloads. Just like airlines overbook flights, Internet service providers sell more bandwidth than they have, knowing that every single one of their customers won’t be online simultaneously. The more data transfer there is, the more it costs the provider. You wouldn’t want Comcast to have to charge you even more, would you?

It’s not like Comcast is the only company limiting data transfer, either. Both Time Warner and AT&T reportedly have plans in the works to cap downloads or charge by the megabyte. Or gigabyte. Whatever.

If you’re one of the few customers who use this much data, don’t worry. Comcast won’t be cutting you off cold turkey. Just like before, the company will contact you if you go over the limit and ask real nicely for you to go outside once in a while.

Or just watch more TV.