ISPs everywhere are making it known that they do not intend for Internet access to be unlimited. It was a popular marketing term in the days of time-limited Internet access. Everyone has seen the old AOL disks and CDs that offer 500 hours for the first month. Users hated having to count hours (and even minutes prior to that). Some ISPs realized this and started offering unlimited Internet access plans as a way to lure users away from the ISPs that limited the amount of time a user could access the service. That was fine in the days of dial-up. You could max out your 28.8kbps connection for the entire month and still transfer very little data. However, broadband brought speeds that, when used to capacity for an entire month, cost the ISPs a little more to deliver the copius amounts of data that could be transmitted. Enter bandwidth caps.
In other countries, bandwidth caps are old news, but the major US broadband providers have only begun to cap users’ monthly bandwidth allotment. Comcast instituted a cap of 250GB on its residential Internet service which began in October of last year after several years of an invisible “bandwidth ceiling.” Before the cap was instituted, there was, in fact, a cap, but no one knew exactly what it was. Even users who hit the cap would never be told exactly what line they had crossed to cause their service to be halted. It seems Comcast wanted these users to, rather than knowing the limit which they would undoubtedly reach every single month, drastically reduce their usage unaware of their actual allotment. They then decided that the Bittorrent protocol was most likely the root of their problems at which time they began throttling data transferred over the protocol. This garnered a good amount of bad publicity and drew the ire of the FCC who ruled that throttling of a particular protocol was illegal.
No one wants to try to sell a service that has previously been unlimited as “limited.” Comcast had tried every way it could to covertly reduce its bandwidth costs, but it essentially had no remaining options but to be forthright with consumers. In September, Comcast informed them their services would, as of October, be limited to 250GB monthly. This move seemed to open Pandora’s box for US terrestrial ISPs to begin instituting their own bandwidth caps. Time Warner had begun testing a 40GB monthly cap in Beaumont, Texas back in June of ’08 but only on Wednesday of last week announced expansion of the program to new cities. AT&T announced in November of last year tiered caps ranging from 20GB to 150GB. Charter just last week announced a cap of 100GB on speeds of 15mbps and slower and 250GB up to their 25mbps offering. Cellular data providers have been capping service for a while now with most currently at 5GB per month.
No one likes caps, but the consensus seems to be that Comcast’s cap is fair. I can attest that I would really have to try hard to exceed it in a typical month, and I am a pretty heavy Internet user. Time Warner’s cap is ridiculously low at 40GB. I could see even average users exceeding this cap on a regular basis, and, at $1 per GB over, they aren’t going to be very happy about it. Charter’s caps are low considering the speed. Even Comcast’s cap will become less and less reasonable as speeds increase and online video gains ubiquity. I venture a guess that, in two years time, 250GB will not serve the needs of even the average Internet user. We have to assess the probability of Comcast increasing the cap to keep up with the times. Barring some competition from a new national broadband ISP offering net-neutral and unmetered access, it seems unlikely they would increase the cap.
Another issue to consider is that, when bandwidth is capped, increased speeds are no longer really a selling point. An increase in speed effectively reduces the portion of the month for which you will have access if you fully utilize that speed. ISPs will undoubtedly continue to market new speed increases as a selling point never pointing out this fact. Deceptive? Sure. Illegal? Doubtful.
As consumers become more aware of the limitations, content providers who depend on this bandwidth to connect with customers (like Hulu or Netflix‘s Instant Watch) will have to scale back offerings to fit within consumer limitations. We won’t ever be streaming Blu-ray movies from Netflix on a 250GB cap whether or not speeds will support it. This will stifle growth, innovation, and creativity among Internet content providers.
We have essentially returned to the days of being ever-mindful of our Internet usage patterns. Now, instead of counting hours, we count bits. The days of carefree Internet usage are most likely over. Here’s hoping for an ISP in shining armor to deliver us great speed unfettered at a reasonable price. It’s our only hope.