Bandwidth Limits Make a Comeback

Bandwidth hogs, beware: Cable operators are targeting power users who transfer massive media (and other) files.

Comcast is testing a technique that slows traffic to and from heavy users during peak periods. Time Warner Cable is trying a usage-based (or tiered) pricing system in Beaumont, Texas; and BendBroadband of Bend, Oregon, now charges customers a usage penalty if they exceed a monthly data-transfer quota. Even some noncable ISPs, such as DSL giant AT&T, are mulling usage-based pricing.

Why the crackdown? "The cable companies are feeling the pain the most from heavy-bandwidth users," says IDC analyst Amy Harris Lind. That's because all cable broadband subscribers in a neighborhood share a single pipe to their ISP; each DSL user has a dedicated link.

Comcast says that less than 1 percent of its broadband customers use "excessive" bandwidth; examples of excess include sending 20,000 high-resolution photos, downloading 50,000 songs, or viewing 8000 movie trailers in a month.

Download Slowdowns

Initially, Comcast is testing bandwidth-throttling in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Warrenton, Virginia. By going after heavy-bandwidth users, Comcast has thus far avoided the controversy it encountered earlier this year when it throttled the speeds of users of peer-to-peer (P2P) applications such as BitTorrent. Critics accused Comcast of violating the Federal Communications Commission-endorsed principle of Net neutrality, which prohibits ISPs from slowing down data transfers of specific applications.

Even consumer advocates have reacted favorably--though warily--to Comcast's tests. Ben Scott, policy director of media watchdog group Free Press, calls bandwidth throttling "legal and appropriate."

BitTorrent chief technical officer Eric Klinker is upbeat, too: "It's certainly a good step from where they were, because it's a more neutral approach, and it allows users to decide what's important to them, rather than the network deciding."

Pay per Bit

In its Beaumont test, Time Warner Cable offers subscribers four tiers of service based on transfer speed and on usage caps that range from 5GB to 40GB. For $30 per month, for instance, Time Warner promises users a download speed of 768 kbps and imposes a 5GB monthly cap; $55 fetches downstream transfers at 1.5 mbps with a 40GB cap. Customers who exceed the usage limit must pay $1 per additional gigabyte. BendBroadband is far more generous: All tiers--ranging from $37 to $65 per month--have a 100GB usage allowance, after which users must pay $1.50 per gig.

Will U.S. customers balk, given that usage-based consumer broadband faded away back in 1996, when AOL went to all-you-can-eat pricing? Justin Moravetz, a BendBroadband subscriber in Bend, Oregon, believes that tiered pricing will ultimately translate into higher Internet fees for all users. ISPs "really like those people who pay full price, and all they do is surf news or check their e-mail," says Moravetz, a Sony computer animator who writes the protest blog Fix Bend Broadband.

"But with video and streaming content becoming more prevalent, even those individuals are going to start consuming a lot more bandwidth."

"I really don't see usage-based pricing working for broadband, and particularly for Time Warner," says IDC's Lind, noting that Beaumont residents can obtain AT&T DSL, with 768-kbps downstream and no cap, for $25 a month.

Usage-based pricing forces power users to track their monthly activity more closely. Both Time Warner Cable and BendBroadband offer tools to help users monitor their gigabyte totals. And Comcast telephones its "excessive users" to warn them that they are exceeding their bandwidth limits.

If you'd like to monitor your bandwidth consumption but your ISP offers no help, check out Hagel Technologies' $25 DU Meter 4.0, which lets you establish usage limits and notifies you if you're on a pace to exceed them. DU Meter doesn't track non-PC bandwidth consumption (by smart phones and consumer electronics, for example), but a $50 Family Pack lets you install it on five computers.

An even simpler tool is ShaPlus's free Bandwidth Meter 1.1. Click its Taskbar Tray icon, and a pop-up window displays your daily and monthly bandwidth totals. I was unable to get two other free monitors, WatchWAN and Net-Regulator, to work on my Windows Vista PC.

It's unclear whether bandwidth throttling and tiered pricing represent the future of home broadband. After all, as Web video becomes ubiquitous, all users may become bandwidth hogs by current standards. Or as BitTorrent's Kliner puts it: "Assessing a video tax by charging power users will increasingly snare your average user."

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