Whoa! Slow down! Or else…

There have been rumblings over the past few years about companies that are throttling customer bandwidth and, in some instances, canceling their service. I can confirm one of the rumors, having worked for the company, and I would tend to believe the other rumors. The problem with most of these situations is that none of these companies ever solidly defines what will result in throttling or loss of service. In fact, most of them merely put clauses in their Terms of Service that states that the bandwidth they are purchasing is not sustained, not guaranteed, etc.

Once particular company has been in the news as of late, having cut customers off time and time again. In fact, they have, what appears to be, a super-secret internal group of customer support representatives that deal with the “offenders.” Really, I’m not making this up. Check out this blog entry. This is pretty typical of companies that enact these types of policies. What I find interesting here is how Comcast determines who to disable. According to the blog entry by Rocketman, Comcast is essentially determining who the top 1% of users are for each month and giving them a high-usage warning. The interesting bit is that this is almost exactly how my previous employer was handling it.

Well, apparently Comcast has come out with a statement to clarify what excessive usage is. According to Comcast, excessive usage is defined as “a user who downloads the equivalent of 30,000 songs, 250,000 pictures, or 13 million emails.” So let’s pull this apart a little. The terms they use are rather interesting. Songs? Pictures? How is this even close to descriptive enough to use? A song can vary wildly in size depending on the encoding method, bitrate, etc. So the same song can range from 1 MB to 100 MB pretty easily. How about pictures then? Well, what kind of pictures? After all, thumbnails are pictures too. So, again, we can vary the size of a picture from 10 KB to 10 MB, depending on the size and detail of the picture. And, of course, let’s not forget emails. An average email is about 10 KB or so, but these can also range up to several MB in size.

So let’s try out some simple math on this. Email seems to be the easiest to deal with, so we’ll use that. 13 Million emails in one month, assuming a 10 KB average size for each email, results in approximately 130 GB of data. That’s only an average of 50 KB per seconds over the course of 30 days. If we assume a user is only on the computer for 8 hours a day, that’s an average of 150KB per second for the entire 8 hours each day. Of course, we don’t normally download at such a consistent rate, it’s much more bursty in nature.

Now, I don’t believe the average user is going to download this much data, but there are business professionals who could easily exceed this rate. But I think the bigger issue here is how these companies are handling these issues. They advertise and sell access rates ranging anywhere from 3 Meg to 10 Meg and then get upset when the customers actually use that bandwidth. Assuming a 3M profile, that means you can download something in the range of 972 GB of data in one month. 10M is even more fun, allowing a max rate of about 3.2 TB. Think about that for a minute. That means you can only use about 13% of a 3M profile, and 4% of a 10M profile before they’ll terminate your service.

While I understand that providers need to ensure that everyone receives a consistent, reliable service, I don’t believe they can treat customers like this. We’ll see how this turns out over time, but I expect that as video becomes more popular, you’ll see customers that exceed this rate on a much more consistent basis. I wonder how providers will handle that…