What Comcast caps could mean for your surfing and streaming

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Comcast has dropped the 250GB monthly limit on bandwidth that its subscribers may consume over cable broadband. For the moment, all limits are off, except with regard to what Comcast calls “the very small number of excessive users” who exceed some unknown higher threshold of bandwidth consumption. The firm plans to test the effect of higher included bandwidth limits (with a maximum of at least 300GB) in combination with overage fees of $10 per 50GB block—which works out to 20 cents per GB—beyond such caps. Wallow in pseudo-unlimited service for now.

The caps are likely to return, based on Comcast’s carefully worded statements about its near-term tests. But what does having no effective limit mean for Comcast subscribers right now? And how might you have to change your behavior when Comcast finishes its testing, installs its new limits, and starts charging fees for excess use?

It boils down to how you consume video through subscriptions, streams, downloads, and torrents; and to whether you routinely upload large amounts of data to sharing sites or Internet backup services.

Let’s break these variables out into three scenarios: downstream with cable television service, downstream without TV, and upstream.

Downstream with cable TV

Comcast brands its cable service with the ridiculous name Xfinity, and I’d better use it to avoid more confusion than the company has already introduced. If you have a television plus Internet bundle (with or without voice service), Comcast doesn’t count any Xfinity TV video that it transmits through its television set-top box against your data quotas, so that’s not an issue now nor will it be in the future. Comcast, like all cable firms, uses a broadcast model that devotes digital channels to making the programming on those channels continuously available. (On-demand service relies on reserved, empty channels in a given neighborhood that the service then assigns to particular subscribers when they request a movie or show.)

Comcast does split out video delivered by other means. With an Xfinity Streampix subscription— kill me, branding gods—Comcast subscribers can view certain TV series and movies via a Web browser or via an iOS app, and watch on-demand content available through a separate subscription. This Internet streaming video is accessible anywhere, but when you use it on your home network, it counts against your cap.

Comcast does exempt one kind of Xfinity programming from caps. When you use an Xfinity app on your Xbox 360. to watch on-demand programming, Comcast uses your Internet connection to stream the video, but doesn’t count it against your cap. It’s a curious choice, as using an Xbox 360 isn't fundamentally different from using a laptop. This circumstance may indicate that when caps return, Comcast will exclude all sorts of streaming video on your local network from totals.

(Comcast may have hell to pay for this, too, as an analysis from Internet backbone provider Level 3, which has jousted with Comcast over network policies in the past, appears to show that Xfinity Xbox streaming continues to work even when the Internet connection is otherwise flooded. Comcast agreed not to give its own data priority as part of its agreement to acquire NBC-Universal, and it may face legal action from the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission if this allegation proves true. Comcast categorically denies prioritizing its data.)

Without the cap in place, you might decide to use more streaming content and to unlock yourself from the set-top box and an attached television, but it would be difficult to watch so much that you'd exceed either the old 250GB cap or a new 300GB one, as your primary viewing will likely continue to be through the TV or from a DVR that records over-the-cable programming.

Advice: Quaff at Comcast’s streaming keg to your heart’s delight, but you’re unlikely to have trouble when caps return.

Downstream without cable

If you, like me, have little interest in 600 channels, but more interest in a limited selection of programs that you can cobble together from ad-supported sites like Hulu, subscription offerings like Netflix and HuluPlus, from streaming services like Amazon, and from Apple’s rent and purchase options for digital downloads, caps and the lack thereof will have a much greater impact on your Internet behavior. (I canceled cable—and later satellite—service some time ago in favor of Internet-only video access coupled with limited Redbox rentals and public library DVD borrowing.)

Have you held back on your Internet video consumption because you were afraid that you’d exceed your 250GB maximum and receive a call from Comcast warning you of a one-year ban from subscribing if you cross that limit again within 12 months?

It’s hard to know whether Comcast’s 250GB served as a deterrent for most people. I know I kept it in mind; and when the company added a bandwidth meter, I consulted it regularly to make sure that I wasn’t about to run afoul of it. But would the average person without a cable subscription cross that line? (Comcast said that until this last week the 250GB number was a guideline, not a hard limit, and that it focused on the heaviest users.)

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