Comcast Shuts Down Customer That Exceeded Bandwidth Cap

For Comcast customer Andre Vrignaud, the internet is an important part of everyday life.

Vrignaud, a 39-year-old gaming consultant in Seattle and a former Microsoft technology evangelist for Xbox 360 and Xbox LIVE, has a lot of data: he has a 12TB basement server that he uses to store all of his music, which is ripped into lossless FLAC format and amounts to about a gig per CD. He saves all of his photos in RAW format, which can run over 10MB per picture. He uses the Carbonite online backup system, he uploads his music to the Amazon cloud music service, and he even does a little bittorrenting. All of this, on top of a roommate who is quite fond of multimedia streaming services, turned out to be too much of a burden for Comcast, so they shut off his service.

"If someone's behavior is such that it degrades the quality of service for others nearby -- that's what this threshold is meant to address," said company spokesman Charlie Douglas. "It can negatively affect other people."

Douglas says the company imposes a 250 GB limit on users, which came into effect in October 2008 after protests from customers kept them from throttling peer-to-peer traffic. Median data usage for Comcast cable internet customers is 4 to 6 GBs per month, according to Douglas. He says that the limit is intended to keep users like Vrignaud from impacting their neighbors, which can occur during peak data usage times. 

Vrignaud, who pays $60 a month for a 15Mbps download speed, went over this limit twice. The first time, he called in to figure out what the problem was. Upon finding out that he had been using too much data, he and his roommate attempted to curb their usage. Vrignaud did not, however, know that Comcast was counting uploads against the quota, as well.

Vrignaud assumes that the music is what caused the problem, but he's not sure. All Comcast will tell him is that he's cut off for the next year - he can't even switch to an uncapped, higher-priced, lower-speed business connection. Comcast says it's his fault for not monitoring his bandwidth better.

"Looking at the facts, it appears that it is a straightforward story," said Douglas. "There's not much we can say. We called and reiterated the policy and told him if he did exceed it again in six months, he would face suspension. That is our policy."

What Douglas failed to mention as that the cap hasn't increased at all since it was instated, even after Comcast has adopted and aggressively improved a system called DOCSIS which allows them to send more data through the same lines. Douglas also did not mention that data usage is not expensive for such a large ISP: it's somewhere around 2 cents per GB sent to or received from the greater internet, and the prices are continuously dropping.

AT&T recently joined Comcast in the "cap club" when it placed a 150 GB per month restriction on its DSL service. Time Warner Cable trialed services with extremely low caps a couple of years ago, but were fought back by customers and politicians.

Vrignaud thinks that Comcast is trying to protect its core video business from online competitors like Hulu and Netflix.

"I struggle when I watch Comcast raising broadband speeds, and at same time, saying they can't afford all this internet usage, without doing deep packet inspection and other invasive things," Vrignaud said. "They haven't laid new cable in 15 years. I'm pretty much a nonregulation guy, and I'd just rather let the market be competitive. But I get really frustrated in situations like this where what is truly a bad company is not being forced to improve because it doesn't have to. I really don't have any choices here."

Douglas disagrees. "People should be careful if they have a terabyte of data to back-up," he said. "They should manage their consumption carefully, and do it over time." However, it seems that Vrignaud wouldn't be able to if he wanted to.

Vrignaud says that he's trying to find alternatives for now, but all he has access to are some relatively slow DSL connections and the Clearwire 4G to the home service. He vows to not give up quietly and plans on contacting politicians and regulators about the issue. He has also posted about it on his blog to much coverage around the web.