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…

Satellite TV Woes

Back in the day, I had Analog and then Digital cable.  Having been employed by a sister company of the local cable company, I enjoyed free cable.  There were a lot of digital artifacts, and the picture wasn’t always that great, but it was free and I learned to live with it.

After I left that company, I had to pay full price for the digital cable I had installed.  Of course, I was used to a larger package and the price just outright shocked me.  With the cable modem included, it was somewhere in the $150 a month range.  Between the signal issues on the cable TV, and the constant cable modem outages, I happily decided to drop both the cable and the cable modem and move on to DSL and Satellite TV.

My first foray into Satellite TV was with Dish Networks.  The choice to do so was mostly guided by my brother’s employment by Dish.  So, we checked it out and had it installed.  At the time, they were running a free DVR promotion, so we grabbed that as well.

Dish is great.  The DVR was a dual tuner, so we were able to hook two TVs up to it.  We could record two shows at once, and watch two recorded shows at the same time, one on each TV.  It was pure TV bliss, and it got better.  Dish started adding little features here and there that I started noticing more and more.  First, the on-screen guide started showing better summaries of the shows.  Then it would show the year the show was produced in.  And finally, it started showing actual episode number information.  Little things, but it made all the difference.

Dish, however, had it’s problems.  My family and I only watch a few channels.  The kids like the cartoon channels : Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Noggin, and Boomerang.  My wife enjoys the local channels for current shows such as CSI and Law and Order, and also the educational channels such as The History Channel, The Science Channel, and Discovery.  And myself, I’m into stuff like Scifi, FX, and occasionally, G4.  CSI and Law and Order are on my menu as well.  The problem is, in order to get all of the channels we wanted, we needed to subscribe to the largest Dish package.  It’s still cheaper than cable, but more money than we wanted to pay to pick up one or two extra channels.

Enter DirecTV.  DirecTV offered all the channels we wanted in their basic package.  So, we ordered it.  As it turns out, they’ve partnered with Verizon, so we can get our phone, DSL, and dish all on the same bill.  Personally, I couldn’t care less about that, but I guess it is convenient.

At any rate, we got DirecTV about a month or so ago.  Again, we got the DVR, but there’s a problem there.  DirecTV doesn’t offer a dual TV DVR.  It’s dual tuner so we can tape two shows simultaneously, but you can only hook a single TV up to it.  Our other TV has a normal DirecTV receiver on it.  Strike one against DirecTV, and we didn’t even have it hooked up yet.

So the guy comes and installs all the new stuff.  They used the same mount that the Dish Networks dish was mounted on, as well as the same cables, so that was convenient.  Dish Networks used some really high quality cables, so I was pleased that we were able to keep them.  Everything was installed, and the installer was pretty cool.  He explained everything and then went on his way.

I started messing around with the DVR and immediately noticed some very annoying problems.  The remote is a universal remote.  Dish Networks used them too.  The problem with the DirecTV remote, however, is that apparently when you interact with the TV, VCR, or DVD player, it needs to send the signal to the DirecTV receiver first before it will send the signal to the other equipment.  This means merely pressing the volume control results in nothing.  You need to hold the volume down for about a second before it will change the volume on the TV.  Very, very annoying.  I also noticed a considerable pause between pressing buttons on the controller and having the DVR respond.  The standalone receiver is much quicker, but there is definitely a noticeable lag there.  Strike two.

Continuing to mess around with the DVR, I started checking out how to set up the record timers and whatnot.  DirecTV has a nice guide feature the automatically breaks down the channels into sub-groups such as movie channels, family channels, etc.  They also have a nicer search feature than Dish does.  As you type in what you’re searching for, it automatically refreshes the list of found items, allowing you a quick shortcut to jump over and choose what you’re looking for.  Dish allows you to put arbitrary words in and record based on title matches, but I’m not sure if DirecTV does.  I never used that feature anyway.  So the subgroups and the search features are a score for DirecTV.

Once in the guide, however, it gets annoying.  Dish will automatically mask out any unsubscribed channels for you, where DirecTV does not.  Or, rather, if they do, it’s buried somewhere in the options and I can’t find it.  Because of this, I find all sorts of movies and programs that look cool, but give me a “you’re not subscribed to this channel” message when I try to watch them.  Quite annoying.

I set up a bunch of timers for shows my family and I like to watch.  It was pretty easy and worked well.  A few days later, I checked the shows that recorded.  DirecTV groups together episodes for shows which is a really nice feature.  However, I noticed that one or two shows never recorded.  Dish had a problem once in a while with recording new shows where the show didn’t have a “new” flag on it and it would skip it.  Thinking this was the problem with DirecTV, I just switched the timer to record all shows.  I’d have to delete a bunch of shows I already saw, but that’s no big deal.

Another week goes by, still no shows.  Apparently DirecTV doesn’t want me to watch my shows.  Now I’m completely frustrated.  Strike three.

Unfortunately, I’m in a two year contract, so I just have to live with this.  I’m definitely looking to get my Dish Networks setup back at the end, though.  That extra few bucks we spent on Dish was well worth it.


DirecTV definitely has some features that Dish doesn’t, but the lack of a dual tuner, the lag time between the controller and the receiver, and the refusal to tape some shows is just too much.  The latter two I can live with, but the dual TV DVR was just awesome and I really miss it.  Since I only have the DVR on the main TV in the house, I need to wait until the kids go to bed before I can watch my shows in peace.  Of course, I need to go to bed too since I get up early for work.  This leaves virtually no time for the few shows I watch, and as a result, I have a bunch of stuff recorded that I haven’t been able to watch yet.  And, since it’s that time of the year where most of my shows aren’t being shown, I know that it’s only going to get worse.

I’m just annoyed at this point.  If you have a choice between Dish and DirecTV, I definitely suggest Dish.  It’s much better in the long run and definitely worth the extra few dollars.