• Debunking the Paranoia Around Comcast's ISP Policies

    While much of the world was on vacation last week, yet another Comcast-related fracas broke out in the blogosphere, this time over the company's latest update to its broadband internet access policies. While this latest flap cements Comcast's status as the favorite target of those who put a totally unfettered Internet on a par with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, my immediate reaction was more "what's the big deal?"

    The latest fracas centers on a seemingly innocuous, yet possibly longer-term significant change in Comcast's "Acceptable Use Policy" which governs how much use you can get out of your Comcast High-Speed Internet service each month. In the past there was no theoretical limit, though Comcast says it always had on eye on its heaviest users (under 1% of its total base of 14 million) who would be contacted when an undisclosed threshold was reached. Last Thursday, Comcast posted a change in its AUP stating that starting October 1st, the usage cap would be 250GB/mo.

    The blogosphere's reaction was immediate and sometimes raucously over-the-top (one well-known blogger pronounced the change "the end of the Internet as we know it"). While Comcast tried to translate the 250GB cap into say, how many emails a user could send each month (50 million) or songs that could be downloaded (62,500), others began furiously crunching the numbers to see more extreme scenarios, like how many HD movies/mo you'd be able to download.

    For my part, I believe that Comcast's new cap - like much of the swirl surrounding its recent BitTorrent throttling - is much ado about nothing, at least for now. Where others see a raging fire threatening to burn down the Internet, I barely see signs of smoke just yet.

    Yesterday I peppered Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas with questions about the cap. While I had to ask several times whether it is intended to stifle broadband video consumption in any way (a favorite conspiracist belief), Charlie finally did provide an emphatic "no." He cited Comcast's own Fancast broadband portal as a key company priority, which itself would be harmed by any sort of broadband crackdown.

    For sure some of you are thinking, "yeah but Will, he's their PR guy, what do you expect him to say?! Why do you believe him?!"

    Fair questions. But contrary to the end-of-the-world crowd, I don't think Comcast has any sinister hidden motives with the cap, or with its network management policies. I do however think that Comcast does not take enough care in determining its policies or communicating them to its broadband users and other constituencies. Combined, these feed the distrust and dislike of Comcast that seems to be pervasive.

    Even in my conversation with Charlie yesterday I found myself having several "huh?" moments that seem to strain credulity. For example:

    Q: Why set a cap and especially one that's so high that it has little practical effect? A: Well, our customer feedback told us we needed to have a cap.

    Q: How was the cap size determined? A: We thought it was a generous amount. Q: But the specific size? A: We thought it was a generous amount.

    Q: Why release news of the cap in the last week of the summer (when many are on vacation and not paying attention) and in the midst of the ongoing FCC network management issue, instead of rolling out a comprehensive new plan that could be messaged accordingly? A: The cap and the FCC network management have nothing to do with each other, they are separate issues. Q: But in the media's coverage and public's perception, they are all considered part of the same picture. A: The cap and the FCC network management have nothing to do with each other, they are separate issues.

    Q: Now that there's a formal cap, how about providing a simple tool so users can monitor their monthly usage, like cell phone companies do? A: Heavy users know how to find these tools; someone just told me last week that a Google search for "bandwidth meter" yields 290,000 hits. Q: Yes, but how about just offering a tool as a "good neighbor" gesture that your customers would appreciate? A: The cap is irrelevant to 99% of our users.

    No doubt you'll find these answers as confounding as I do. All I can conclude is that 10+ years into the broadband game, Comcast still hasn't recognized how vital its broadband service is to its users nor how it has become part of a far-larger tableau including freedom of speech, the economy and American competitiveness. Comcast's seeming tone-deafness to all of this was fully evident in its continuously revised responses to the FCC's BitTorrent inquiry earlier this year.

    This explanation will strike many as too generous and trusting. However, until I see real evidence of perniciousness on Comcast's part, to think anything else just feels like paranoia to me.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.