Comcast Admits Broadband Usage Caps Are A Cash Grab, Not An Engineering Necessity

from the whoops-a-daisy dept

For years the broadband industry tried to claim that they were imposing usage caps because of network congestion. In reality they’ve long lusted after usage caps for two simple reasons: they allow ISPs to charge more money for the same product, and they help cushion traditional TV revenues from the ongoing assault from Internet video. Instead of admitting that, big ISPs have tried to argue that caps are about “fairness,” or that they’re essential lest the Internet collapse from uncontrolled congestion (remember the debunked Exaflood?).

Over the years, data has shown that caps aren’t really an effective way to target network congestion anyway, can hinder innovation, hurt competitors, and usually only wind up confusing consumers, many of whom aren’t even sure what a gigabyte is. Eventually, even cable lobbyists had to admit broadband caps weren’t really about congestion, even though they still cling to the false narrative that layering steep rate hikes and overage fees on top of already-expensive flat-rate pricing is somehow about “fairness.”

Comcast is of course slowly but surely expanding usage caps into its least competitive markets. More recently the company has tried to deny it even has caps, instead insisting these limits are “data thresholds” or “flexible data consumption plans.” But when asked last week why Comcast’s caps in these markets remain so low in proportion to rising Comcast speeds (and prices), Comcast engineer and vice president of Internet services Jason Livingood candidly admitted on Twitter that the decision to impose caps was a business one, not one dictated by network engineering:

Jason’s not the first engineer to admit that caps aren’t an engineering issue and therefore don’t have anything to do with congestion. In fact if you followed the broadband industry’s bunk Exaflood claims over the last decade, you probably noticed that ISP lobbyists say one thing (largely to scare legislators or the press into supporting bad policy), while actual engineers say something starkly different.

Repeatedly we’ve been told by ISP lobbyists and lawyers that if ISPs don’t get “X” (no net neutrality rules, deregulation, more subsidies, the right to impose arbitrary new tolls, whatever), the Internet will choke on itself and grind to a halt. In contrast, the actual people building and maintaining these networks have stated time and time again that nearly all congestion issues can be resolved with modest upgrades and intelligent engineering. The congestion bogeyman is a useful idiot, but he’s constructed largely of bullshit and brainless ballast.

Livingood will likely receive a scolding for wandering off script. Comcast, unsurprisingly, doesn’t much want to talk about the comment further:

“We’ve asked Comcast officials if there are any technology benefits from imposing the caps or technology reasons for the specific limits chosen but haven’t heard back yet. Livingood’s statement probably won’t come as any surprise to critics of data caps who argue that the limits raise prices and prevent people from making full use of the Internet without actually preventing congestion.”

That’s worth remembering the next time Comcast tries to insist that its attempt to charge more for the same service is based on engineering necessity. The problem? Our shiny new net neutrality rules don’t really cover or restrict usage caps, even in instances when they’re clearly being used to simply take advantage of less competitive markets. While Tom Wheeler did give Verizon a wrist slap last year for using the congestion bogeyman and throttling to simply make an extra buck, the FCC has generally been quiet on the implementation (and abuse) of usage caps specifically and high broadband prices in general.

There are some indications that the FCC is watching usage caps carefully, and says it will tackle complaints about them on a “case by case basis.” But what that means from an agency that has traditionally treated caps as “creative” pricing isn’t clear. It’s another example of how our net neutrality rules were good, but serious competition in the U.S. broadband sector would have been better.

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Companies: comcast

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Comments on “Comcast Admits Broadband Usage Caps Are A Cash Grab, Not An Engineering Necessity”

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Violynne (profile) says:

Repeatedly we’ve been told by ISP lobbyists and lawyers that if ISPs don’t get “X” (no net neutrality rules, deregulation, more subsidies, the right to impose arbitrary new tolls, whatever), the Internet will choke on itself and grind to a halt
This is true, though.

Let me rewrite this so it makes it clear:
“Repeatedly, we’ve been threatened by ISP lobbyists and lawyers that if ISPs don’t get ‘X’ (no net neutrality rules, deregulation, more subsidies, the right to impose arbitrary new tolls, whatever), the ISP will choke the Internet by itself and grind it to a halt.”

Amazing how a few simple changes to wording can make a claim a reality.

ThatDevilTech (profile) says:

Re: Re: Two Words

I wouldn’t doubt anything an end-user might do. I’m glad my cable provider doesn’t do caps…yet. I’d hate to think how much my house goes through in a month. Between XBMC, Netflix on multiple computers, plus when I have to login remotely for work and just other general web usage. One daughter loves binge-watching YouTube videos in HD. The other leaves Netflix on all night. Our usage would be well beyond the cap before we’re halfway through the month, much less the first week probably.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Two Words

Most people do not understand the difference between the amount of data they use and the bandwidth required to say stream Youtube, and confuse the data consumption over a month with congestion slowing down of their Facebook page, which could be because everybody has jumped onto Facebook at the same time. Interestingly the same people understand the difference between time spent on the phone, and the congestion and difficulty of making call when something big happens, like when a bomb goes off in their vicinity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Two Words

I would be in favor of caps in limited circumstances. IE a secondary VPN connection for OOB. Charge like $10-20/mo for a 10GB/mo and a static IP? It would be better than celluar modems at least for cost. You’d have to be at a smaller DC though to avoid cross-connect charges which would invalidate the savings.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Let me rewrite this so it makes it clear:
“Repeatedly, we’ve been threatened by ISP lobbyists and lawyers that if ISPs don’t get ‘X’ (no net neutrality rules, deregulation, more subsidies, the right to impose arbitrary new tolls, whatever), the ISP will choke the Internet in collusion with other incumbents and grind it to a halt.”
Amazing how a few simple changes to wording can make a claim a reality. ;D

Baron von Robber says:

Re: Re:

In most cases, I would think I would agree. But, first it would have to hurt Comcast’s reputation. Well can’t be any worse for them, so that’s not it.

Then, it would have to hurt their bottom line. But, considering they are a virtual monopoly, that won’t happen either.

So they only reason left to punt him is if Comcast is the most slimy, evil, twisted and sadistic entity in human history.

Oh damn, he maybe in trouble.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Honestly, Jason Livingood has been on record multiple times explaining issues on Comcast’s end. He was even pretty honest about the whole Netflix debate. He’s on a lot as well as Karl, so that would be one place to look. Even if I don’t always agree with him, he’s at least honest about what’s going on. When Comcast did get burned with the whole BitTorrent deal, I do believe he just stayed quiet. So my guess would be he can at least pick and choose his battles, which of course shines a better light on Comcast.

ConcurrentMedia (user link) says:

Objection your honor

I think you’re over-interpreting the evidence here, and being unfair to Mr. Livingood as a result. First of all, *Comcast* didn’t admit anything. One employee of Comcast responded to a specific question regarding the relationship between data caps and data speeds. His response amounted to a “no comment” (i.e. dunno, not my department).

That’s not to say Comcast is not gouging its subscribers. I just wouldn’t call Jason as a witness.

Anonymous Coward says:

Reminds me of a Verizon VP at college

Talking about the end of unlimited data owing to airwave congestion. Which fooled no electrical or computer engineer in the room. Skipping the technical reasons that is full of crap, it still was obviously false. Even if we assume some point in the future taking the wireless network to its theoretical limits allowed by current models of physics their billing structure gave it away. If bandwidth really was a problem you wouldn’t charge more for text messages than phone calls.

My immediate thoughts after sitting through that crap was “short Version, they are going to attempt suicide”.

AJ says:

Damn.. he said you could reach your cap in 6 hours… How would that compare to… lets say a car lease? Google says, 12K is your average yearly mileage allowed on a lease.That’s 1K a month. To burn up 1K miles in 6 hours you would have to drive 167 (rounded) miles an hour average speed.

I wouldn’t drive your car 167 miles per hour, why are you capping my internet?

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

To burn up 1K miles in 6 hours you would have to drive 167 (rounded) miles an hour average speed.

Yet more proof that car analogies make no sense when talking about the internet.

I believe what they are trying to ask is if your car is capped at 300 miles/month, why give customers a car that can go greater than 50 mph.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Caps and Speeds

The problem is that people don’t realize about network congestion, which is sometimes out of the providers control. So congestion could be at the end-user, something Jim Getty is well noted for evangelizing, though he’s not discounting other factors (Buffer bloat). It could also be at the endpoint, server issues, bgp issues, et al. Or it could also be at interconnection points between service providers, peering links. If I asked you personally to test from 50 different network points on various providers to find the bottleneck would you be able to do that? The Internet, a network of networks, is often a complex beast to troubleshoot a -> b issues, when a -> x -> y -> z -> et al before it hits b, and even then the ingress path could be different from the egress path, so the need for a bunch of different monitors.

Anonymous Coward says:

Cox is rolling out data caps

I got an email from Cox informing me that I went over 350 gigs on my plan, it only took me 2 weeks. I called them up to find out if they have overage fees and also to complain because I was not aware they implemented data caps. It must be new because the agent I talked to is unsure of any fees as well.

Nerdburg says:

Oh come on Carl, this article is crap. You can do better. You know darn well that there is no hard cap at Comcast anymore and they have switched over to testing usage based billing in some test markets. If you don’t know that data caps and usage plans are different things, perhaps you should dig a little deeper so you understand shit before you right about it. Comcast has never claimed that there is a technical reason for usage plan limits, because there aren’t.

Gavin Greenwalt says:

Business vs. Technical

Of course it’s a business not technical decision. Technically Comcast could provide everybody 10gbE to the home. But the price would be outrageous and the business would fail. Comcast could provide uncapped internet and raise their prices to reflect the current internet transit prices–but then people would complain that their internet is too slow.

Selling burst speed that is limited in duration is perfectly reasonable. If I want a file, I want it right now.

I don’t like caps, and I would love cap free internet but saying that caps are a business decision isn’t nefarious it’s reflecting the fact that bandwidth is able to be sold at a discount to consumers because consumer usage patterns are different from say a popular FTP server. In an ideal world speed would be infinite and bandwidth would be what you paid for.

cyberdoyle (profile) says:


In the UK we have one wholesale provider and many ISPs. They buy the least amount of data they can get away with, in order to make a profit. They have limits on data and if you use more you move up a tariff. It’s all a big con, because it isn’t competition. There is no way round this issue, because one company owns it all, and the prices mean caps are necessary to stay in business. Therefore it throttles innovation, because people get bored. Waiting for pages to load cos they’ve been slowed down in the bottlenecks. Satellites are even worse, and even light users run out of data before the month is up.

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