Users Say Comcast Broadband Usage Meters Don't Work, May Result in Hundreds Of Dollars Of Errant Charges

from the show-your-math dept

We've noted for years that usage caps on fixed line broadband connections are little more than a major, unnecessary price hike on uncompetitive markets. But while caps certainly are little more than a cash grab, there's another less talked about problem at play: nobody is making sure ISP usage meters are accurate. That has resulted in a number of instances where an ISP will bill users for consumption when the power is off, and even some instances where ISPs confused MAC addresses and billed the wrong customer for additional monthly consumption.

As you might expect, Comcast is often at the heart of these conversations. This week, they're making the news once again for overbilling a customer $1500 for phantom bandwidth consumption, then refusing to provide any solid evidence this phantom consumption actually occurred. Like many users before them, the customers discovered a major discrepancy between their own router logs and and ISP's usage meter. But Comcast being Comcast, the company's historically-bad customer service usually only makes a bad situation worse:
"So far, despite all the calls we have made, no one is willing to even provide us with one shred of proof this data was consumed, by what method or website(s) it was used on. They just keep telling us to trust them, the data was used. We have asked for investigations of the Internet history to prove this usage, and they say they will do so, but they never do."
As is so often the case, only once the media was involved was Comcast willing to "help." In this case, Ars Technica demanded Comcast prove the errant usage was actually happening, but the company not only couldn't provide any hard data whatsoever -- but it tried to claim the terabytes of extra consumption were being caused by an Apple TV unit that apparently became sentient and started downloading screensavers on its own (subsequently disproven). With Comcast charging hundreds of extra dollars and just simply refusing to show its math, Ars gets to the real meat of the problem:
"The months of testing, without any firm conclusions, raise one question with no straightforward answer. If Comcast, the nation's largest Internet provider, can't determine what's pushing its subscribers over their data caps, why should customers be expected to figure it out on their own? On top of that, few customers other than Brad receive such extensive testing. And even that testing would never have happened if his father hadn't contacted a journalist.
For what it's worth, Comcast has long stated that it uses a firm by the name of NetForecast to measure its meter accuracy, and that this firm consistently finds that Comcast's meters are accurate to within 1%. But that's not the story coming from Comcast's actual consumers, who get to enjoy the one-two punch of first being charged hundreds of extra dollars for nothing, then having to navigate Comcast's horrendous and inflexible customer service to fix a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place. And as Comcast keeps pushing its caps into new, uncompetitive areas, the volume of complaints will only grow.

There are two subjects that telecom regulators simply refuse to address. One being the misleading and often completely fabricated below-the-line fees ISPs use to jack up the price of broadband after a sale. The other being the punitive, unnecessary and potentially anti-competitive usage cap, not to mention the ISP desire to bill like utilities, but their total unwillingness to actually be regulated as such. As a result, no objective third party is ensuring that logged bandwidth consumption is accurate, a major problem as more and more ISPs look to usage caps to milk uncompetitive markets.

Filed Under: broadband, broadband meters, competition, net neutrality, toll booth
Companies: comcast


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  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 9:46am

    Gee if a gas station doesn't measure a gallon of gas accurately, there are penalties.
    Pretty much everything sold by measure is supposed to be accurate, yet somehow despite clear evidence the meters are wrong and the income it generates keeps them from looking to closely.

    There is no reason for the caps, other than to increase profits. Many people have started staying under the caps, so the next best thing is to just make up numbers & collect extra fees.

    Once upon a time there were agencies who would oversee these things and correct them... pity the congresscritters were bought off, with such piddly amounts, to pull the teeth from the agencies that are supposed to protect us.

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

    • icon
      art guerrilla (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 9:53am

      Re:

      as you may know, most/all? states have people who supposedly test and certify the gas pumps, often with a little 'tamperproof' seal thingy on it...
      why couldn't the states certify the speeds, usage, etc stats of online providers to determine their accuracy and reliability ? ? ?
      i know i don't trust an ISP's speed test, unless/until i run it against 2-3 other online tests...

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

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:55am

      A question of measurement units

      Comcast was measuring usage in Comcast(tm) Megabytes. Not in inferior unbranded "megabytes" that have no particular value.

      The measurement in Comcast Megabytes was, if anything, favorable to the consumer.

      Notice: the definition of Comcast Megabytes is subject to change without notice. Your bandwidth limit is also measured in Comcast Megabytes. Without doing this Comcast would be unable to properly manage its network operations.

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

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 12:10pm

      Re:

      And if they want to bill as an utility provider they should abide to the same rules. This is a dangerous game they are playing and it could end badly both for them and for the consumers if shit hits the fan.

      And honestly, if I'm going to pay for the megabyte then I will block everything that is not essential to a page load. Ads first. This can have serious cascade effects.

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

      • icon
        That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 12:53pm

        Re: Re:

        Speaking of which...

        https://twitter.com/gdead/status/771527795042385921

        A 1 word article on the NYT took 6MB and 150 requests to load.

        People wouldn't expect that much traffic for 1 crappy article, and with most of the major players playing the bandwidth cap game things are going to get uglier.

        Advertising might make them pennies, but its costing consumers money as massive amounts of data are being used up displaying shit no one wants pushing them towards the caps sooner.

        Ads are eating up the bandwidth, costing consumers.
        Ads are serving up malware, costing consumers.

        Pretty much consumers are being screwed on both sides of the equation, and it is only going to get worse.

        There is no reason to have caps, other than to make even more money from the monopoly.

        Lets see...
        We have defacto approved monopolies.
        We hand them huge amounts of money to provide service to people under the poverty line... and they lined their pockets while lying.
        We hand them sweetheart deals, and they screw over entire states who sometimes notice they got screwed.
        We allow them to let systems rot, to force consumers onto more expensive options that are less useful.
        We have shitty broadband deployment, upgrading might hurt the bottom line for shareholders so we can't have them.
        We have them buying laws to make sure no one can compete with them, because it might show people how much we are overpaying for how little we get.
        We allow them to promise all sorts of things, and then start sneaking in addons and unexplained charges raising the prices well beyond the advertised price.

        Its time to smash the monopolies, they aren't benefiting anyone except the CEOs. There are small services offering actual gigabit service for less than many people pay for the lowest tiers of speed in the monopolies. Something isn't adding up, and we should stop letting them hold the country hostage to pad their bottom line. For all of the talk about free markets, they keep the monopolies in place... time to force everything open and watch the market explode.

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

        • identicon
          YAS, 22 Dec 2016 @ 3:40pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Remember when internet was $15-20 a month...Nothings changed. Sure things grow and evolve, but the only thing that has changed outside of their regular business which hasn't changed(need to repair, replace, and maintain services), is inflation. Figure out the inflation from 10-15 years ago. That is the price we should be paying today. Anything over the top is purely robbery.

          I grew up being taught monopolies were illegal, so wdf happened? Did the laws change or is it anarchy? when can I start?

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

    • icon
      yankinwaoz (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 9:48pm

      Re:

      I have written to the Calif. Dept of Weights and Measures asking them to do this exact thing in the past. They told me that they don't have jurisdiction.

      If a business sells a product by some metric, then I can't imagine why it would not fall under this department's jurisdiction. I wrote in complaints about AT&T Wireless charging me for megabytes of data that didn't make any sense.

      I fail to see why mobile cellular data, minutes on calling cards, internet data caps, whatever, are exempt from regulation. There is something very wrong with allowing a merchant to control the "meter" for their product.

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

  • icon
    sorrykb (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 9:54am

    But it does work

    Users Say Comcast Broadband Usage Meters Don't Work, May Result in Hundreds Of Dollars Of Errant Charges

    The problem is that, for Comcast, this is working exactly as intended.

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

    • icon
      Jeremy Lyman (profile), 7 Sep 2016 @ 5:37am

      Re: But it does work

      Sometimes the Internet flap can get stuck open on older modems. If you hear the Internet running, just jiggle the handle on the back and it should stop. A small leak can really add up!

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

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 9:57am

    outright fraud

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:00am

    What if they weren't "errant"?

    According to the article, the meter tracks the amount of data sent from the CMTS to a modem. The CMTS can't know whether the user wanted the data, and anyone on the internet can send data to a particular modem. It would be really easy for anyone with good upload speed to send a terabyte or two to a Comcast user they don't like. (It only takes a few Mbps. Do it mostly during peak hours, and be sure to stop sending when they're offline, and it won't be easily deniable.)

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:04am

    Perhaps ....

    They're not taking into account retrys. TCP (the most common protocol used for data traffic) will retransmit data if a packet is corrupted in route. So if there's a low signal to noise ratio, there will be a lot of retransmission and from the user's point of view everything is working although slower than normal. But from a data traffic point of view, there will be a LOT of data going back and forth although the amount of actual data that the user receives will be quite small compared to the amount for data transversing the network.

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

    • icon
      Machin Shin (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:26am

      Re: Perhaps ....

      Perhaps your right..... But that is all the more reason why these things need oversight. Charging someone extra because your network sucks and is dropping packets left and right is a whole new level of corruption.

      That is charging them extra for poor service, and we all know that Comcast would look at that and choose to make everyone's service worse instead of trying to fix it. They are not worried about network quality, they are only worried about income quantity.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:49am

        Re: Re: Perhaps ....

        Charging someone extra because your network sucks and is dropping packets left and right is a whole new level of corruption.

        I haws a personal experience with this (poor signal blamed on me when it was Comcast).
        I had for months major issues with poor quality internet and cable signal. Had techs come out numerous times to troubleshoot. Everyone had a different answer that all somehow evened up being my fault. "You are using a splitter on one room, Comcast does not allow splitters in the house" (seriously had one tech say this to me). "You are using a substandard modem" (I was using a high quality modem I bought that is still on their recommended list today years later). Story after story of that. Finally I had a competent tech come out. He did not even step inside the house and found the problem. The wire coming from our distribution box to our house was really worn down (he said several parts were exposed) and not sufficient for both internet and cable requirements. He installed a new line and instantly my issues went away.
        I wouldn't be surprised if that happened to me today I would have been in a similar problem as the OP.

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

        • icon
          JoeCool (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:42am

          Re: Re: Re: Perhaps ....

          I had a similar issue with DSL some years back. Randomly, the phone line would be too noisy for DSL. In fact, I could barely be heard over the phone. I'd call tech support and they'd send someone out... a week later. Of course, not a one would show on a day when the problem was occurring, so they'd shrug and leave. Eventually (a couple of years of frustration later), one DID arrive when the problem was occurring. It turned out to be the drop line from the telephone pole to the house. It would swing in the wind, and if it swung far enough, it would cause noise. One replaced wire later and I never had another problem.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 12:06pm

        Re: Re: Perhaps ....

        Charging someone extra because your network sucks and is dropping packets left and right...

        Or it might be that little el cheapo home router.

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

    • identicon
      techno, 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:26am

      Re: Perhaps ....

      If the signal to noise ratio is so bad that it overcharges by terabytes, then the service should be punished for such shoddy service. If the user isn't getting the data they shouldn't be getting billed for it. If I order a sandwich and they drop it in the kitchen I don't get charged because a sandwich failed to get to me.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 5:38pm

        Re: Re: Perhaps ....

        "If I order a sandwich and they drop it in the kitchen I don't get charged because a sandwich failed to get to me."

        In the world of Comcast, not only would you be charged for it, but for the extra "toppings"; the dirt, germs, maggots and cockroaches added when it was dropped, picked up, and handed to you.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2016 @ 6:17am

          Re: Re: Re: Perhaps ....

          Comcast in this analogy would just charge you for the second sandwich on top of the first. Then add a service fee for having to double the order, another fee for cleaning the first sandwich up, a C&D letter for distributing copyrighted sandwiches to unauthorized cockroaches, and then press release how they are so great for just making the second sandwich for you without having to make you sit through the order process again.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:33am

      Re: Perhaps ....

      Depends upon the method used for measurement. Some count the number of packets sent regardless of re transmissions.

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

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:00am

      Re: Perhaps ....

      I smell an opportunity for a great scam!

      So if a router just happened to 'mysteriously' have one bit flipped in a checksumed packet, making that packet useless, you could count any NAK and retransmission against the customer's bandwidth? Cool!

      I wonder if Comcast's routers could one day have a statistically improbable number of cosmic ray events causing 1 bit packet errors?

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:03am

        Re: Re: Perhaps ....

        Other way around. If you Don't use a Comcast rented router, they cannot guarantee metered usage will be accurate and may cause significant overages.

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

        • icon
          DannyB (profile), 7 Sep 2016 @ 11:45am

          Re: Re: Re: Perhaps ....

          I meant a router at Comcast's property. A larger router than a home router. A router handling all of Comcast's customers* in and out bound traffic. Could it overcharge?

          * people more privileged than regular customers use a separate internal network which actually works.

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

    • identicon
      Unanimous Cow Herd, 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:49am

      Re: Perhaps ....

      Even then, that sounds like an issue where they are receiving poor service. So, should they pay more?

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

    • icon
      techflaws (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:56pm

      Re: Perhaps ....

      Why should a customer pay for lost packets?

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

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:23am

    Up Next:

    Comcast Broadband Usage Meter Hires Peter Thiel's Favorite Lawyer To Threaten Techdirt

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

  • icon
    NeghVar (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:40am

    Pathological liar

    Who is a worse pathological liar. Comcast or Hillary Clinton?

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

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:05am

      Re: Pathological liar

      I'd go with Comcast - in the context of other ISPs.

      Out of context Hillary is a liar. *In* context - other politicians - she'd compare favorably to anyone in the 2016 or 2012 Republican primaries.

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

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:09am

      Re: Pathological liar

      Comparison of liars.

      I'm sure that Hillary carefully considers and ponders most lies.

      Trump says whatever lies are convenient at the moment, without regard to previous things said, or earlier commitments, or any intention of actually honoring what he says. Stream of consciousness lying. Like how the wind changes direction on a whim.

      I'm not sure which style of lying is more similar to Comcast.

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

    • icon
      JBDragon (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 2:52pm

      Re: Pathological liar

      It's close enough to be tied.

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

  • icon
    One Tom too Many (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:27am

    COMCAST Opens up their Wireless Modems

    I don't know if anyone else has noticed it, however, every time I try to disable my COMCAST cable modem's wireless broadcast system for 2.4g and 5g it keeps turning itself back on and broadcasting a COMCAST signal out for others called xfinitywifi. No matter how many times I try to shut it off it turns itself back on again. Plus, Comcast also allows other people who are Comcast customers to login into your wifi and claim that they don't count it against your upload/download monthly traffic. So far I haven't had a huge issue with them counting against my traffic since I pay for the gaming package and do a lot of upload/download of video material for the work I do. However, after reading stuff like this I'm leary of their support.

    So, if you see a random xfinitywifi station broadcasting on 2.4g and 5g know that it is YOUR Com(munist)cast XFinity wireless cable modem letting other John Q. Public members who have an account with Comcast access the internet through your cable modem. (And they supposedly don't count the traffic against your usage.....)

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 1:02pm

      Re: COMCAST Opens up their Wireless Modems

      I highly recommend you get your own instead of renting. You will make up the cost of a high end one in less than a year and you get complete control over every aspect, especially network access.
      Install it yourself (most are plug and play and walk you through the setup process). All comcast will need is the mac address for your modem. If they tell you they must install it or you must use their rented modem, they are lying.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 1:10pm

      Re: COMCAST Opens up their Wireless Modems

      Agreed with AC above me - The cost of a Comcast rented router is $5/month, which comes to $60 per year. A 100% compatible (as in, it's on the compatibility list on Comcast's own website) router from Amazon costs $50.

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

  • icon
    Jeremy2020 (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:45am

    Most people won't even know how to fight this or that they didn't "use" that much bandwidth. Couple that with people who may only get charged a few bucks and just pay it...it all adds up to a great scheme to make profit.

    Don't worry though, if they eventually get caught, they'll have to pay a fine that is a fraction of what they made from the practice...soo...ya know, justice.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 11:58am

    Which is it?

    First
    nobody is making sure ISP usage meters are accurate

    followed by
    Comcast has long stated that it uses a firm by the name of NetForecast to measure its meter accuracy, and that this firm consistently finds that Comcast's meters are accurate to within 1%.

    So, which is it?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 12:12pm

      Re: Which is it?

      The original article states that NetForecast has checked Comcast's math. For 29 whole accounts. Period.

      In statistics class in college they proved to us that if you graduated from our college you would be guaranteed to make 3 million per year immediately. The professor picked a sample size of 3 recent grads, one of which got a 5 million dollar contract with the NFL. The two others got $50k. (I may be getting these numbers wrong). The point being that sampling 29 households out of the millions upon millions is not a large enough sample size to prove anything.

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 12:20pm

      Re: Which is it?

      It's just missing a few words to be completely accurate.

      '...nobody that can be trusted to provide an unbiased assessment is making sure ISP usage meters are accurate'

      In this case this is Comcast we're talking about, you can be sure that if the company they hired to make sure the meters were accurate said that no, they were not even remotely close to accurate the response would not be to spend the money to fix the meters, it would be to fire them and look for a new company to provide a more 'accurate' assessment.

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

    • icon
      techflaws (profile), 6 Sep 2016 @ 10:58pm

      Re: Which is it?

      It's the latter. If you think that

      55 out of ~24 million

      is a meaningful sample size.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 12:09pm

    Not just Comcast...

    I use the smaller ISP MediaCom and am currently going through this. For months on end I would be shown using roughly 80-100gb in a month. In July it jumped to 400gb for two months. My router has always matched what Mediacom reported (roughly), and hasn't budged from the 80-100gb when Mediacom jumped up exponentially. I get billed for usage over 350gb as well.

    So while I know the router isn't entirely accurate, I'm fairly sure my bandwidth hasn't quadrupled overnight. I'm guessing Mediacom changed something on the backend, or or I'm a victim of the a mac address clone.

    Coincidentally, we too were gone in the hospital for a week the first month our usage skyrocketed, and we somehow used 4x the bandwidth in a 3 week period?

    Unfortunately, there seems to be nothing we can do to combat the ISPs on this stuff. The net neutrality stuff is a good start, but I don't think it went far enough. They're now utilities, and utilities need to be MASSIVELY audited when they're metering their customers. Every other utility is. But ultimately I figure it'll all get thrown out next year anyway. My assumption is whoever the new president is will throw Wheeler out and put an industry loyalist back in.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 1:28pm

    Comcast counts infrastructure data -- it happened to me!

    For a couple of years, my comcast usage was outrageously higher than I was actually using.

    At one point, I hooked up a unix box directly to the modem (no router) and used wireshark to watch what was happening -- 20GB/day of Broadcast ARP PING traffic being received by my modem for random IP addresses all across the place. All of which was counted as my usage.

    I complained, but of course found nobody who understood what I was talking about, nor interested in finding someone who understood. After a couple of years of 600GB of extra traffic a month, it just stopped. I guess someone fixed it.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Sep 2016 @ 1:50pm

    Comcastic not fantastic

    Don't worry, Bob is very handy with a tape measure and will be sure to measure your usage correctly.

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

  • identicon
    Griffon, 6 Sep 2016 @ 4:40pm

    maybe but

    You know, O'm happy bash on Comcast, but I busted may apple TV 4 doing exactly that, eating many many Terobyts of data. I had to slap a traffic shopping rule on it keep it under control. Something really messed up with those and it dose not just appear to be the screen saver videos, it's like to renown loads them over and over rather then caching them like it says.
    Even now it' still a pig, over the last 30 days apple tv 4 has used 159G, only 4.3G is directed to Netflicks. Net flicks and plex are the ONLY two apps used on it.

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


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