By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007
The rapid growth of online videos, music and games has created a new Internet sin: using it too much.
Comcast has punished some transgressors by cutting off their Internet service, arguing that excessive downloaders hog Internet capacity and slow down the network for other customers. The company declines to reveal its download limits.
"You have no way of knowing how much is too much," said Sandra Spalletta of Rockville, whose Internet service was suspended in March after Comcast sent her a letter warning that she and her teenage son were using too much bandwidth. They cut back on downloads but were still disconnected. She said the company would not tell her how to monitor their bandwidth use in order to comply with the limits.
"You want to think you can rely on your home Internet service and not wake up one morning to find it turned off," said Spalletta, who filed a complaint with the Montgomery County Office of Cable and Communication Services. "I thought it was unlimited service."
As Internet service providers try to keep up with the demand for increasingly sophisticated online entertainment such as high-definition movies, streaming TV shows and interactive games, such caps could become more common, some analysts said.
It's unclear how many customers have lost Internet service because of overuse. So far, only Comcast customers have reported being affected. Comcast said only a small fraction of its customers use enough bandwidth to warrant pulling the plug on their service.
Cable companies are facing tough competition from telephone giants like AT&T and Verizon, which are installing new cables capable of carrying more Internet traffic.
The cable companies collectively spent about $90 billion in the past decade to improve their networks. And on cable networks, several hundred subscribers often share an Internet connection, so one high-traffic user could slow the rest of a neighborhood's connections. Phone lines are run directly to each home, so a single bandwidth hog will not slow other connections.
As Internet users make more demands of the network, cable companies in particular could soon end up with a critically short supply of bandwidth, according to a report released this month by ABI Research, a New York market-research firm. This could lead to a bigger crackdown on heavy bandwidth users, said the report's author, Stan Schatt.
"These new applications require huge amounts of bandwidth," he said. Cable "used to have the upper hand because they basically enjoyed monopolies, but there are more competitive pressures now."
To trigger a disconnection warning, customers would be downloading the equivalent of 1,000 songs or four full-length movies every day. Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas declined to reveal specific bandwidth limits.
"It's our responsibility to make sure everyone has the best service possible," he said, "so we have to address abusive activities so they won't damage the experience for other customers. "
Companies have argued that if strict limits were disclosed, customers would use as much capacity as possible without tipping the scale, causing networks to slow to a crawl.
Some customers are unaware they are using so much capacity, sometimes because neighbors are covertly connecting through unsecured wireless routers. When they are told of that possibility, many curb their use after an initial warning, Douglas said. Others, however, may be running bandwidth-hungry servers intended for small businesses from their homes, which can bog down a network serving a neighborhood. Comcast said it gives customers a month to fix problems or upgrade to business accounts before shutting off their Internet service.
Joe Nova of North Attleboro, Mass., lost Internet service after Comcast told him that he was using too much bandwidth to watch YouTube videos, listen to Internet radio stations and chat using a Web camera. He and other customers who complained of being shut off said they were not running servers from their homes.
"Sure, I'm online a lot, but there's no way I could have been consuming that much capacity," Nova said.
Other Internet service providers, including Time Warner Cable, Verizon and AT&T, say they reserve the right to manage their networks, but have not yet suspended service to subscribers. Smaller Internet service providers RCN in Herndon, Leros Technologies in Fairfax and OpenBand in Dulles said they do not cap bandwidth use.
Some AT&T customers use disproportionately high amounts of Internet capacity, "but we figure that's why they buy the service," said Michael Coe, a spokesman for the company.
Cox Communications, which provides Internet and cable services to parts of Northern Virginia and Maryland, said the bandwidth demand on its network has doubled every year for the past six years. It has boosted its speeds twice in the past 18 months to keep up and offers tiered service plans for heavier users, spokesman Alex Horwitz said.
"We don't spend a lot of time enforcing [bandwidth] caps, but we contact customers when their usage is egregious enough for it to impact the network," he said. "Instances are few and far between."
When Comcast canceled service to Frank Carreiro, who lives in a Salt Lake City suburb, he started a blog about the experience. His wife and six children then relied on sluggish dial-up Internet access until a phone company offered DSL service in his neighborhood.
"For a lot of people, it's Comcast or it's nothing," he said.
Bob Williams, director of HearUsNow.org, a consumer Web site run by Consumers Union, said the vagueness of Comcast's rules is "unfair and arbitrary."
"They're cutting service off to the people who want to use it the most," he said.
Schatt, the ABI Research analyst, said he expects cable companies to spend about $80 billion over the next five years to increase network capacity. In addition, they may acquire airwaves at an upcoming federal auction and could lay fiber-optic lines over their existing cables. Switching to digital-only programming could also help conserve capacity.
Comcast, Cox and Time Warner say they have more than enough capacity to meet demand and are adding new technologies to strengthen signals. Bruce McGregor, senior analyst at Current Analysis, a research firm in Sterling, said the bandwidth bottleneck is not yet a crisis for cable companies, but it could intensify with competition from phone companies.
Companies like Comcast "need to address people who are major drains on the network" without angering consumers, he said. "They're not the only game in town anymore."