Comcast Suspends Data Cap Temporarily, Will Test New Overage Fees

Comcast is replacing its strict 250GB monthly data cap for residential users with a higher cap and a way to buy extra data, hoping to stem criticism that the nation’s largest cable ISP is throttling the open internet.

Comcast is suspending enforcement of its hard 250GB cap nationwide as of Thursday, while it prepares two regional tests of new caps that come with ways to buy chunks of data if you go over them. Users who repeatedly crossed Comcast’s 250GB cap, instated in 2007, have been be cut off and banned from the network for a year. Critics, including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, have accused Comcast of trying to protect its core cable television business from online video services.

Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen said that kind of cap sent the wrong message, especially since only a “small small percentage gets near the threshold.” The company declined to say what that percentage is.

“We want to send a signal to customers that our network is robust and has tremendous capacity,” Cohen said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “We don’t want customers to have a sense that we can’t use this app on the internet.”

The two upcoming trials will impose a 300GB cap, with overage fees of about $10 for 50GB of more data. In one trial, faster tiers of service will have higher caps, while the other will impose the same 300GB cap on all speeds.

“This will effectively offer unlimited use of service,” Cohen said. “Customers can buy and use as much data as they like.”

But Cohen admitted Comcast doesn’t want users to think that the network has that much capacity. The cap is being raised a mere 50GB (less than a 5 percent yearly increase in capacity). And the company is spending considerable effort to measure the traffic for each customer, to build a usage meter and create a warning and billing system.

And as more people scale back or eliminate cable television subscriptions in favor of online video, data usage will continue to grow. Video streams, especially high-quality video, uses a lot of bandwidth. An HD movie, for instance, can take about 3.5GB of data. However the price of moving data continues to fall dramatically, so that a large cable operator like Comcast pays a tiny, and falling, percentage of its revenue for moving data in and out of its network.

While the company declined to clearly explain why it was even bothering to keep a cap, Comcast is either laying the groundwork for a future where many customers actually pass their cap regularly and pay for more data – as the nation’s two largest mobile carriers are betting on, or they are facing a real problem with over-usage by a very small percentage of their userbase that they think they can solve with a method less draconian (and bad-PR-producing) than cutting the user off.

Comcast also seemed to be trying to divert attention from a controversy surrounding their new service for XBox users which streams the company’s cable TV offering to the XBox using IP protocol. But that data usage doesn’t apply to the cap, which some see as a violation of the FCC’s new net neutrality rules. But Comcast says it’s in the clear since its allocated a new slice of its cable pipes to the product, so the traffic isn’t technically competing with online video such as YouTube or Netflix.

Comcast did not say whether those who had been booted from the network under the old policy would be given amnesty to return. Comcast has yet not started the trials or determined their exact parameters or locations.

Local traffic congestion measures, where Comcast throttles heavy data users for 15-minute periods when local loops are filling up, will remain in effect, now and into the future, Cohen said.

But until the trials finish and the new pay-as-you-go model is put into effect, there’s a brief window of unlimited data use for Comcast customers, so download while the downloading is good.
Photo: Imelda/Flickr