The decision by Comcast–the nation’s second largest broadband-service provider (after AT&T)–to set an official limit on the amount of data that residential subscribers can download and upload each month could affect students who learn from home or live off campus, ed-tech observers say.

On Oct. 1, cable giant Comcast Corp. will update its user agreement to say that users will be allowed to transfer a maximum of 250 gigabytes of data per month, the company announced on its web site Aug. 28.

The move furthers what is a growing trend in bandwidth-management practices by cable internet providers: metering or capping monthly usage so there is enough bandwidth available for everyone. Comcast’s earlier efforts at solving the problem by blocking or delaying file-sharing traffic were found Aug. 1 to violate the Federal Communications Commission’s "net neutrality" principles.

Comcast had already announced it was reserving the right to cut off subscribers who use too much bandwidth each month, but it had not previously disclosed exactly what it believes constitutes excessive use.

"We’ve listened to feedback from our customers who asked that we provide a specific threshold for data usage, and this would help them understand the amount of usage that would qualify as excessive," the company said in a statement on its web site.

Customers who go over the limit will be contacted by the company and asked to curb their usage.

"We know from experience the vast majority of customers we ask to curb usage do so voluntarily," the company said.

Comcast floated the idea of a 250-gigabyte cap in May and mentioned then that it might charge users $15 for every 10 gigabytes they go over, but the overage fee was missing in the company’s Aug. 28 announcement.

Curbing the top users is necessary to keep its network fast and responsive for other users, Comcast has said.

Comcast stressed that the bandwidth cap is far above the median monthly usage of its customers, which reportedly is 2 to 3 gigabytes.

Very few subscribers use more than 250 gigabytes, the company said. A user could download 125 standard-definition movies, about four per day, before hitting the limit.

The cap is also above those of some other ISPs. Cox Communications’ monthly caps vary from 5 gigabytes to 75 gigabytes, depending on the subscriber’s plan. Time Warner Cable Inc. is testing caps between 5 gigabytes and 40 gigabytes in one market. Frontier Communications Co., a phone company, plans to start charging extra for use of more than 5 gigabytes per month.

Comcast’s decision to set a 250-gigabyte cap on monthly bandwidth usage for its residential subscribers is a far better solution than blocking or delaying peer-to-peer file-sharing activity, said Steve Worona, director of policy and networking programs for the higher-education technology group Educause. But, he added, "the devil is in the details" of the plan.

"What are they going to do to subscribers who go over?" Worona said. "Also, there’s no way of determining if you’re going over or not–only Comcast knows that and will have to alert you."

Comcast should do what Cornell is doing, he said: "Cornell allocates bandwidth per individual user, and if individual students go over, they are charged a fixed fee. The students can also go to [a] web page and see how much they’re using."

Reacting to the size of Comcast’s monthly usage cap, Worona had this to say: "Downloading videos and music, et cetera, for school [use] should be OK … but what I’m worried about is live streaming. What if you are using video conferencing? What if you’re streaming throughout the day? This could be a problem."

Links:

Comcast Corp.

Educause


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