FCC Boss Mocks Unfair Comcast Broadband Caps At Industry Dinner, Still Hasn't Done Squat About It

from the tilted-playing-fields dept

As we've covered for some time, Comcast has slowly but surely been expanding the company's immensely-unpopular broadband usage caps. Primarily deployed to less competitive markets where consumers can't vote with their wallet, the caps restrict customer consumption to 300 GB per month, after which users have the option of either paying $10 per each additional 50 GB, or paying a $30 to $35 fee for the same unlimited data they used to enjoy. It's Comcast's charming way of imposing a glorified rate hike on uncompetitive markets while simultaneously using market power to protect TV revenues from Internet video.

And while arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps are bad enough, the company recently added a new wrinkle to the mix: it launched a streaming video service (creatively called "Stream") that won't count against Comcast's usage caps. That obviously puts competing services at a disadvantage, so it raised alarm bells among net neutrality advocates. Comcast, however, has argued that because Stream is a "IP cable service delivered over our managed network to the home," net neutrality doesn't apply. What has the FCC said? Nothing.

The FCC's neutrality rules don't specifically restrict zero rating, and the agency has said it will approach such issues on a "case by case" basis. So far, however, the FCC has been utterly mute on the subject of Comcast caps and zero rating of its own services. That was until last week's FCC Bar Association Chairman's dinner (aka the "telecom prom"), where lobbyists and regulators rub elbows and giggle over the year's events. FCC boss Tom Wheeler spent some time making fun of the industry's chicken little response to Title II, but also Comcast's usage caps (and its refusal to call them caps):
"Wheeler had hardly gotten warmed up when he turned his attention to Comcast, which had a table at the dinner. Wheeler said the custom at the dinner was "to drink as much wine as you want." Then he asked: "Where's the Comcast table," then repeated himself and scanned the crowd. When the table had identified itself, the chairman went to work. "Waiters, pay attention. If they want more wine, it's 35 dollars a bottle. And don’t consider it a wine cap. Just think of it as a wine usage plan."
That would be much funnier had the FCC taken any action over the last three years as Comcast has moved slowly to punish less competitive broadband markets with usage caps. In fact, not only has the FCC turned a blind eye to the inherent anti-innovation and anti-competitive impact of usage caps, it has ignored the fact that as ISPs bill by the byte -- nobody objective is checking to ensure usage meters are accurate. That has resulted in instances where customers were billed for usage even when their modems were off or they had no power.

It's possible the FCC is waiting for the dust to settle from its current legal battle with the broadband industry (which could demolish its rules entirely). Given that net neutrality abuses are a symptom of limited competition, it's also possible the FCC hopes its policies (like embracing municipal broadband) or a deus ex machina (Google Fiber) will somehow fix the market, making action unnecessary. But it's just as possible the FCC's current leadership thinks this kind of obvious discrimination is just "creative pricing." After all, the FCC's reaction to other zero rating plans has ranged from quiet, tacit approval to outright praise.

Still, the FCC has yet to seriously acknowledge the threat of using broadband caps as a zero-rated weapon against smaller competitors, and that could prove problematic for those expecting the FCC to actually use the net neutrality rules many fought so hard for.

Filed Under: broadband caps, data caps, fcc, net neutrality, tom wheeler
Companies: comcast


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2015 @ 10:07am

    America Headed For Technology Trouble

    As US Internet speeds continue to fall behind the rest of the world and prices continue to rise we are setting ourselves up to be technologically behind. Someday more data hungry services that haven't even been thought of yet will emerge out of other countries and not even practical within the US.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2015 @ 11:24am

      Re: America Headed For Technology Trouble

      The US is already behind other countries in some areas, especially in high priced goods and services, some of which are of average or low quality.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2015 @ 3:11pm

      Re: America Headed For Technology Trouble

      Then pewrhaps the US should remove everyone in the legislature and the 'news' media to begin with.

      The silent rumstlings of brown envelopes are all that is currently understood. And it needs to stop, as these people are stealing America's future - quite literally.

      Starting with the constant bombardment of anti-intellectualism and the rampant silence over actual injustices; the constant idolatry of false prophets in televangelism; the dark denialism of rational thought in the education system; the intentional drowning in debt of the youth, known to reduce people's long-term intelligence; and the moral bankruptcy of the élites, who constantly ignore the people they claim to represent without literal bombardment from them for the sake of favors and money.

      America is currently in a tailspin, and even though the middle is being crushed under the endless weight of the burdens imposed by its government's employers, with people exploiting that same class for their ideals, it doesn't look promising.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2015 @ 10:09am

    All the free speech being hampered out there...

    ...and nobody thinks to outlaw the lobbyists. These events are shameful, and throw an ugly stain on top of the positive that Wheeler may have tried to accomplish.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2015 @ 11:53am

    "Inaccuracy"

    nobody objective is checking to ensure usage meters are accurate. That has resulted in instances where customers were billed for usage even when their modems were off or they had no power.
    This doesn't mean they're inaccurate, just that people don't understand what's being billed. If the US Postal Service billed you for each letter you received, you'd still be paying even when nobody was home. And even for mail you didn't ask for or want, and probably for mail you didn't receive (because mail can be lost after it's counted).

    IP datagrams basically work like the postal system. Except that it's unmetered for most residential senders, which makes it even worse for people billed on receipt. There's no way for an ISP to tell whether you wanted the data, so if someone decides to flood you you'll have to pay. (Which makes it very different from gasoline, for example--if I send a gas tanker to your house, you won't be on the hook for the bill.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2015 @ 5:00pm

      Re: "Inaccuracy"

      Can you now explain how a powered off modem has packets directed towards it that should count against you?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2015 @ 7:21pm

        Re: Re: "Inaccuracy"

        Can you now explain how a powered off modem has packets directed towards it
        It depends on the technology. Cable modems are basically a broadcast medium, usually with long-lived DHCP leases. Generally the ISP can route to the correct network segment based on the IP, so it's plausible that traffic directed to an IP could go to the network segment where the modem used to be. (It's somewhat similar to ethernet. If you disconnect a computer from your home network and watch traffic at the router, you'll see network traffic still going there. I get packets for addresses in my block that I've never used.)

        DSL does require a carrier signal, so the DSLAM will notice quickly when a modem disconnects. But the billing is probably somewhere upstream of the DSLAM—there are lots of DSLAMs in a network which makes it less convenient for billing. It could be reasonably accurate if the ISP wrote the code to pause the meter while offline.

        As a more esoteric example, malware authors (Turla, HackingTeam) have had their software send traffic to other people's satellite IP addresses; the authors then anonymously sniff the satellite traffic to get that data. (These are one-way links so the provider can't know whether the satellite "modem" is online.)

        that should count against you?
        In a datagram-based system, incoming traffic shouldn't be counted against anyone. Billing for unpowered modems is mostly a PR problem: the complaints reveal that people don't understand how IP works. Technical fixes could be implemented but will do nothing for the majority of people who leave their modems on all the time. If I send you a terabyte of unwanted traffic, should your bill depend on whether your modem happened to be plugged in?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2015 @ 8:02am

        Re: Re: "Inaccuracy"

        Because Cable "Modems" aren't "modems". They don't modulate, or demodulate. They are Ethernet bridges. "Cable Modem" is a marketing term.

        Traffic will be directed at the port, IF there is a carrier, because Ethernet is a BUS media. (Yes, I know, switched-E etc. etc.) But run tcpdump on that port. Yes, you get TONS of shit that is not destined for you.

        But! What comes over the port is irrelevant in terms of traffic measurement, since the traffic is probably being metered well into Comcasts network rather than at that port. They actively suspend TCP sessions in user traffic, AND inject HTTP headers. Which means that ALL of their customer TCP/UDP transmissions are probably monitored at some level.

        Comcast doesn't have to measure the port, they can measure what you actually view. (view ~ TCP|UDP session) Whether THOSE counters are correct is a reasonable question.

        My guess is that the answer is no, they are not that accurate. This has to do with hardware/software architecture. The CPU required to send the frame over the port is more important than the CPU required to count what is sent. Counting frames sent is sometimes suspended when the switch is heavily loaded. However this tends to work in the customers favor.

        Note that there are likely some security problems presented by their chosen architecture as well, since BUS systems are pretty notorious for allowing MITM attacks. Which is something Comcast will have known before they went with this architecture. But it is unlikely we will never know how severe this problem is, since hackers are risking life sentences in prison (or life indentureship to the FBI) these days.

        Really it would be nice to know how owned these guys have been over the years.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2015 @ 2:34pm

          Re: Re: Re: "Inaccuracy"

          Because Cable "Modems" aren't "modems". They don't modulate, or demodulate. ...blah blah blah...

          Excuse me, but like some others in this thread, you don't know what you're talking about.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Bob, 11 Dec 2015 @ 12:54pm

      Re: "Inaccuracy"

      So you wont bat an eye at the bill you get when I DoS your cable modem while you're on vacation? Ok, thanks for letting me know!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2015 @ 7:10pm

        Re: Re: "Inaccuracy"

        So you wont bat an eye at the bill you get when I DoS your cable modem while you're on vacation? Ok, thanks for letting me know!

        You leave your cable modem on while you're on vacation? Do you leave your front door open also? You know, there is such a thing as due diligence.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jilocasin (profile), 10 Dec 2015 @ 11:58am

    We are using the wrong metaphor....

    I think a large part of the problem is that we consistently use the wrong metaphor in the digital realm and this contributes to the mess we are in (as does the unabashed greed of certain players).

    No one ever actually downloads anything.


    Now go back and reread that last sentence, I'll wait. Ruminate and let it really sink in.

    I"m serious, whether it's songs, images, movies, or just data caps, no one in the history of the internet has ever downloaded anything.

    Here's an example:

    You have a desktop computer with a 500 GB hard drive. You fill it up with 100GB of operating system and program related files, and then download 55GB of music, and 300GB of movie and television files. How big is your hard drive now? If you had actually downloaded anything, then you should have at least an 855GB hard drive now right? What, it's still only 500GB? How can that be?

    If I have 1 DVD of the Matrix, and a 6 DVD set of Season 1 of Supernatural I have 7 DVDs. When I go out and purchase the other 9 seasons I will have 61 DVDs.

    Now someone will most likely point out that if I downloaded those other 9 seasons and burned them to DVD I would also have 61 disks, so that proves I downloaded something right? Not so fast. First I would have had to buy 54 blank disks. I have those disks even before I wrote anything on them. All I accomplished when I copied those episodes to those disks was to rearrange the patterns of ones and zeros. I didn't download anything. If were to calculate PI to a gazillion digits, saved that to a text file and burned those on the 54 blank disks instead, I would still have the same number of disks.

    All digital media just contain directions. The directions on how to recreate some text, or a picture, or song, or movie, etc. It's like a magical blackboard or Etch A Sketch. The capacity it just how big it is, how many words or lines you can write on it and still be able to read it. If I had a blank white board, and a really talented artist who could look at a picture and recreate it on my white board, would you say that I had downloaded that picture? Why not? It's what your computer does every time you save a picture.

    When you download a book, some other computer tells your computer how to write the words from it's book onto your computer so that later on your computer can display the same book. The analog version would be if you wanted a copy of a book and instead of going out and buying one, you bought a blank personal diary. Then you found someone else who had the book and had them read it to you over the phone, writing down every word that they said into your previously blank pages. When you were all done you wouldn't say you had downloaded a copy of that book, would you? Could anyone, with a straight face, claim that you had stolen that book? Then why do people say that about the exact same things when they were done with a computer?

    Perhaps you are wondering that all of the above has to do with data caps. Well if no one ever actually downloads anything how does it make any sense to charge you based on the amount that you download?

    All computers do when they share information, is tell each other how to write in their own books, blackboards, Etcha a Sketches, what the other computer already knows. No one ever actually sends anything physical across a network. A more accurate analogy would be a good ol fashioned POTS phone call.

    Computer A, lets call it Alice contacts computer B, lets call it Bob and wants to know what the current stock prices are on the Tokyo stock exchange. Alice calls Bob and asks for the information, Bob reads them off and Alice writes them down. Now by consulting Alice, you can check on how your stocks are doing this morning. So how much data did you download? I guess you could add up how many pages the information takes up. 1 page, 10 pages, 100 pages. That would be like charging you based on the number of words spoken.

    Imagine your cell phone plan, the phone company charges you $0.10 a minute (Net10) [and here's the strange part] limits you to 5000 words a month. After that they charge $10 per 100 words. For an additional $35 / month you can use all the words you want. You better start talking in some kind of abbreviation heavy code, or be willing to pay the overages. Stupid right?

    Your internet access is pretty much the same, you purchase the right to connect with a certain speed talker for $ x.xx / month usually. For a low price you get a slow talker, and old timer who pauses and stammers. For a little more, your average office worker, for still more an excited fast talking teen. If you are really lucky (1GB+) you can get a superfast, hopped up on methamphetamine and way too many red bulls speed talker.

    Data Caps are like the phone company charging you by the word, on top of what they are already charging you for the connection. Perversely, the more you paid for your connection, the less you are allowed to use it.

    There's a reason why dial-up was charged based on the minutes your were connected. It was the only resource you were actually consuming, connection time. Anyone remember AOL? For $9.95 base fee, you got 5 hours of online access, after that it was $2.95 an hour? 1200 baud -> 2400 baud -> 36.6K baud -> 52K baud, more words per minute, still charged by the minute.

    When an ISP tries to claim internet access is like the water company, and you should be charged more for using more, they are just taking advantage of the popular misconception to gouge you and your pocketbook. There is no shortage of bits or bytes, because everyone's just flipping the bits they already have. It's not like clean water, that will somehow run out. It's like people talking (just really efficient tireless mechanical people talking in code really fast).

    Internet access pricing should have followed the same trajectory as voice calls. Charges per minute followed by charges per hour, until just finally a flat charge for access whether you use it or not. Whatever you are using it for, voice or data, eventually the cost of maintaining the network far outstrips the cost of actually using the network. If the provider only charges when you actually use it, they would have to charge an exorbitant price just to keep the lights on. Instead, like a fitness club, you charge a flat rate knowing that most people won't use it that much and a few will be on that exercise bike 8 hours a day 7 days a week. Although, unlike a fitness club, it's much cheaper to scale up capacity then it is to rent a larger warehouse and but dozens more treadmills and exercise bikes.

    I think if more people started using a more appropriate metaphor, then these shenanigans would be a lot more obvious and harder to pull off.

    Just my $0.02.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2015 @ 5:42am

      Re: We are using the wrong metaphor....

      Downloading is simply the process of copying data from one machine to another. It may be over a network or off a disk but that act is downloading.

      Of course you may not keep that data for long but you still downloaded it in the first place.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 10 Dec 2015 @ 12:44pm

    Usage caps everywhere

    I went to McDonald's the other day and ordered three burgers off the dollar menu to go.

    "That'll be six dollars."

    "Uh, I ordered THREE burgers, not six."

    "We're instituting a cap on burgers. Any burgers after the first two now cost four dollars each."

    "Why the hell would you do that?"

    "Someone came in the other day and ordered ONE HUNDRED of the dollar burgers."

    I nodded. "Ah, so you couldn't serve anyone else because of the big order."

    "No, sir! We had no problem with the order. In fact, we make so many of the things that we wind up throwing out half of them every day!"

    Now I was puzzled. "Then why the cap on burgers?"

    "We're telling everyone that if we don't cap the burgers, everyone will become huge pigs and then we WON'T be able to serve everyone."

    I fumed a bit. "That's not true at all! This is the first time I've ever HEARD of someone doing such a thing. I'm only ordering THREE, myself!"

    She nodded. "Yes, sir. We're just TELLING everyone that's why. It's really so we can make more money on the cheapest burgers we have. Maybe they'll switch to a more expensive burger if they realize they aren't getting their money's worth."

    She smiled. "Speaking of which, we have our Super Deluxe Burger with super sized fries and a drink for six dollars! Would you like that instead of three dollar burgers?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    AndrewLee, 10 Dec 2015 @ 10:12pm

    My last month with Crapcast after capping me I used 66TB before telling them to fuck off. Then I used their modem as a clay pigeon.

    I wrote a little script to run up my bandwidth.
    1. Download multiple large open source torrents.
    2. Delete the files.
    3. Repeat.

    They called me 7 times trying to talk me into coming back. On the 7th I decided to fuck with them. I left my phone on speaker and talked with them for 3 hours while my GF was tied to a Sybian.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2015 @ 11:40am

    Meters

    ...nobody objective is checking to ensure usage meters are accurate.

    That same problem also exists with power, water and gas meters. I'm pretty sure they're all over-billing me, I just can't prove it. But let me miss a few payments and see what happens!

    And don't get me started on the pumps at petrol stations that have been found to be inaccurate more than once. Thiefs, the lot of them!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Dec 2015 @ 6:11pm

      Re: Meters

      I noticed my car didn't have as much gas in it the other day as it should have for the amount of driving i do. I don't think I used it all. I think someone siphoned some out. But I bet I still get a bill for it all. Unfair!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2015 @ 7:27am

    Disaggree

    My guess is that the reason for usage caps instead of throughput caps is falsely advertised capacity. Perhaps they REALLY don't want actual capacity to be measurable because it might have legal ramifications? Ferris? Bueller? SEC?

    Note that pretty much every ISP designs their network to make it look higher performance than it is. But Comcast is unique in that it views CPE as a "cable box". And over the years they have mangled standardized protocols regularly. Saving a penny on hardware costs, has likely been the culprit in terms of backing them into a corner.

    I'd speculate that usage caps isn't something they want. Really, ANY measurable way of comparing their network to any other network is something they REALLY don't want. Usage capping is another tile on the Janga tower that is their network. Seriously.

    Think of it as an canary for failing to scale the network properly. Usage caps are probably expensive to administrate compared to a competently managing the network to begin with. So Take heart. This is really good for their competitors, even if it totally blows for their customers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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