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Australia’s National Broadband Network Looking for Scapegoats Over Maddening Slowdowns

Australia’s speed-challenged NBN is looking for scapegoats and finds video game players an easy target.

In 2009, Australia’s Labor Party proposed scrapping the country’s copper wire networks and replacing virtually all of it with a state-of-the-art, public fiber to the home service in cities from Perth to the west to Brisbane in the east, with the sparsely populated north and central portions of the country served by satellite-based or wireless internet.

It was a revolutionary transformation of the country’s challenged broadband networks, which had been heavily usage capped and speed throttled for years, and for large sections of the country stuck using Telstra’s DSL service, terribly slow.

The National Broadband Network concept was immediately attacked by the political opposition as too expensive and unnecessary. Conservative demagogues in the media and in Parliament dismissed the concept as a Cadillac network delivering unnecessarily fast 100 Mbps connections to 90% of Australians that would, in reality, mostly benefit internet addicts while leaving older taxpayers to foot the estimated $43AUS billion dollar bill for the network.

The leaders of the center-right Liberal Party of Australia promised in 2010 to “demolish” the NBN if elected, claiming the network was too costly and would take too long to build. As network construction got underway, the organized attacks on the NBN intensified, and it was a significant issue in the 2013 election that defeated the Labor government and put the conservative government of Tony Abbott into power. Almost immediately, most of the governing board of the NBN was asked to resign and in a series of cost-saving maneuvers, the government canceled plans for a nationwide fiber-to-the-home network. In its place, Abbott and his colleagues promoted a cheaper fiber to the neighborhood network similar to AT&T’s U-verse. Fiber would be run to neighborhood cabinets, where it would connect with the country’s existing copper wire telephone service to each customer’s home.

Abbott

Unfortunately, the revised NBN implemented by the Abbott government appears to be delivering a network that is already increasingly obsolete. Long gone is the goal for ubiquitous 100 Mbps. For Senator Mitch Fifield, who also happens to be the minister for communications in the Liberal government, 25 Mbps is all the speed Australians will ever need.

“Given the choice, Australians have shown that 100 Mbps speeds are not as important to them as keeping monthly internet bills affordable, when the services they are using typically don’t require those speeds,” Fifield wrote in an opinion piece in response to an American journalist complaining about how slow Australian broadband was while reporting from the country.

The standard of “fast enough” for Senator Fifield also seems to be the minimum speed at which Netflix performs well, an important distinction for the growing number of Australians watching streaming television shows and movies.

Unfortunately for Fifield, network speeds are declining as Australians use the NBN as it was intended. While perhaps adequate for a network designed and built for 2010 internet users, data usage has grown considerably over the last eight years, and the government’s effort to keep the network’s costs down are coming back to haunt all involved. Several design changes have erased much of the savings the Abbott government envisioned would come from dumping a straight fiber network in favor of cheaper alternatives.

Right now, depending on one’s address, urban Australians will get one of four different fiber flavors the revised NBN depends on to deliver service:

  • Fiber to the Home (FTTH): the most capable network that delivers a fiber connection straight into your home.
  • Fiber to the Neighborhood (FTTN): a less capable network using fiber into neighborhoods which connects with your existing copper wire phone line to deliver service to your home.
  • Fiber to the Basement (FTTB): Fiber is installed in multi-dwelling units like apartments or condos, which connects to the building’s existing copper wire or ethernet network to your unit.
  • Fiber to the Distribution Point (FTTDP): Fiber is strung all the way to your front or back yard, where it connects with the existing copper wire drop line into your home.

In suburban and rural areas, the NBN is depending on tremendously over-hyped satellite internet access or fixed wireless internet. Customers were told wireless speeds from either technology would be comparable to some flavors of fiber, which turned out to be true assuming only one or two users were connected at a time. Instead, speeds dramatically drop in the evenings and on weekends when customers attempt to share the neighborhood’s wireless internet connection.

Instead of improving the wireless network, or scrapping it in favor of a wired/fiber alternative, the government has set on so-called “heavy users” and blamed them for effectively sabotaging the network.

Morrow

NBN CEO Bill Morrow recently appeared before a parliamentary committee to discuss reported problems with how the NBN was being rolled out in regional Australia. Morrow blamed increasing data usage for the wireless network’s difficulties, singling out slacker video game addicts for most of the trouble, and was considering implementing speed throttles on “extreme users” during peak usage periods.

Stephen Jones, Labor’s spokesperson for regional communications, questioned Morrow on what exactly an “extreme user” was.

“It’s gamers predominantly, on fixed wireless,” said Morrow. “While people are gaming it is a high bandwidth requirement that is a steady streaming process,” he said.

Morrow suggested a “fair-use policy” of speed throttles might be effective at stopping the gamers from allegedly hogging the network.

“I said there were super-users out there consuming terabytes of data and the question is should we actually groom those down? It’s a consideration,” he said. “This is where you can do things, to where you can traffic shape – where you say, ‘no, no, no, we can only offer you service when you’re not impacting somebody else’.”

The NBN itself has regularly dismissed claims that online gamers are data hogs. In an article written by the NBN itself, it stressed gameplay was not a significant stress on broadband networks.

“Believe it or not, some of the biggest online games use very little data while you’re playing compared to streaming HD video or even high-fidelity audio,” the article stated. “Where streaming 4K video can use as much as 7 gigabytes per hour and high-quality audio streaming gets up to around 125 megabytes per hour, (but usually sits at around half that) certain online games use as little as 10MB per hour.”

The article admits a very small percentage of games are exceptions, capable of chewing through up to 1 GB per hour, but that is still seven times less than a typical 4K streaming video.

In fact, the NBN’s own data acknowledged in March 2017 that high-definition streaming video was solely responsible for the biggest spike in demand. NBN data showed the average household connected to the NBN used 32% more data than the year before. When Netflix Australia premiered in March 2015, overall usage grew 22% in the first month.

So why did Morrow scapegoat gamers for network slowdowns? It’s politically palatable.

“They always have someone to blame for why the NBN doesn’t deliver, they have every excuse except the one that really matters, which is the flawed technology,” said the former CEO of Internet Australia Laurie Patton. “In this case for some reason shooting from the hip [Bill Morrow] had a go at gamers and gamers are not the problem.”

As long as Australia continues to embrace a network platform that is not adequate robust to cope with increasing demands from users, slow speeds and internet traffic jams will only increase over time. In retrospect, the decision to scrap the original fiber to the home network to save money appears to be penny wise, pound foolish.

Comcast Dumps Congestion Management System It Says Was Unused for a Year

Image courtesy: cobalt123Comcast has quietly dropped its internet congestion management system, designed to slow down its heaviest users, claiming it has gone unused for more than a year and was no longer needed.

Originally spotted by readers of DSL Reports, the announcement referenced the system that replaced Comcast’s speed throttle that intentionally degraded peer-to-peer network traffic after Comcast claimed it was unfairly impacting its other customers:

As reflected in a June 11, 2018 update to our XFINITY Internet Broadband Disclosures, the congestion management system that was initially deployed in 2008 has been deactivated. As our network technologies and usage of the network continue to evolve, we reserve the right to implement a new congestion management system if necessary in the performance of reasonable network management and in order to maintain a good broadband Internet access service experience for our customers, and will provide updates here as well as other locations if a new system is implemented.

Comcast’s “protocol-agnostic” network management technology, designed by Sandvine and introduced in 2008, measured customer traffic and singled out heavy users for speed reductions when Comcast’s network was saturated with traffic. Customers were unaware if they were deemed heavy users or if their traffic was targeted for temporary speed reductions. Comcast relied on the technology, along with the introduction of a 250 GB nationwide data cap, to control network traffic and stall the need for expensive node-split upgrades.

Comcast claims the introduction of DOCSIS 3.0 (starting in late 2008) and DOCSIS 3.1 (2017) gradually eliminated the need to maintain the congestion management system, because channel bonding vastly expanded available internet bandwidth. What remains in place in most Comcast service areas is Comcast’s controversial 1 TB usage cap. The company initially claimed its data caps were part of a network traffic management strategy, but more recently the company claims it collects more from heavy users to compensate for its broadband investments.

Spectrum Ditching Usage Measurement Meter Tool in July; Usage Caps Not in the Cards

Charter Communications is abandoning any pretense of data caps on its internet service by decommissioning its internet usage measurement tool for residential subscribers effective this July.

Company officials began notifying customers in billing statements that the usage measurement tool will be dropped effective next month. Charter Communications markets Spectrum internet service as free of any data caps, and a usage measurement system only confused customers about whether their internet usage was truly unlimited.

Originally introduced by Time Warner Cable in late 2009 and gradually made available to customers nationwide, the usage measurement tool reported monthly data usage for customers as part of Time Warner Cable’s original 2008 market test of data caps in Beaumont, Tex.

Customers were offered a Lite Tier with a 5 GB monthly cap or 40 GB of usage for the company’s Turbo Tier. Overlimit fees were $1/GB.

The company attempted to expand its data cap trial in the spring of 2009 to customers in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Rochester, N.Y., and the Triad region of North Carolina. A major backlash, organized in part by Stop the Cap!, resulted in those market trials being abandoned within two weeks of being announced.

Time Warner Cable never attempted to impose compulsory data caps again after its disastrous 2009 trial and Charter Communications quietly abandoned its own frequently unenforced usage caps in 2015, shortly before bidding to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

By ditching the usage measurement tool, Spectrum will retire the last remaining elements of Time Warner Cable’s legacy of dabbling with usage caps and further monetizing internet usage.

Charter is also forbidden from imposing data caps for up to seven years as a result of deal conditions imposed by regulators in return for approval of its merger with TWC and BH.

Data-Capping Comcast Forecasts “Tremendous Amount of Consumption” Growth in Broadband Usage

Usage caps for one and all.

Comcast, which insists on placing a 1 TB (1,000 GB) usage cap on most (but not all) of its broadband customers, is predicting explosive growth in broadband usage as customers connect more devices to their internet connections.

“[If] you look at in terms of just overall consumption, just at a high level, you look at the top 10% of our customers, just how much they use, they are using 20 or more connected devices,” said Comcast Cable president and CEO David N. Watson on a company conference call. “And it’s a tremendous amount of consumption that we have. And I think that’s where the market is going. There is going to be more consumption, more connected devices.”

Comcast’s growth forecasts suggest the company schedules regular network upgrades, although it has only adjusted usage allowances three times in the last decade:

  • Comcast introduced a 250 GB usage cap in 2008 that carried no overlimit penalty but persistent violators lost their Comcast broadband service.
  • Comcast raised the cap 300 GB in 2013 and implemented an overlimit fee.
  • Comcast raised the cap to 1 TB in 2016 and began promoting its Unlimited Data Option as an insurance policy against bill shock from overlimit fees.

“It is important to know that more than 99 percent of our customers do not use a terabyte of data and are not likely to be impacted by this plan, so they can continue to stream, surf, and download without worry,” claims Comcast on its website. As of December, 2017, “Xfinity Internet customers’ median monthly data usage was 131 GB per month during the past six months.”

Such claims should make customers wonder why Comcast needs a usage allowance of any kind if these claims are true. A 2016 study suggests Comcast may have more heavy users than it is willing to admit. The research firm iGR found average broadband usage that year was already at 190 GB and rising. There is no third-party verification of providers’ usage statistics or usage measurement tools, but there are public statements from Comcast officials that suggest the company faces a predictable upgrade cycle to deal with rising usage.

“We increase the capacity every 18 to 24 months,” confirmed Watson.

Upgrading is also a crucial part of Comcast’s ability to charge premium prices for its internet service.

“Not all broadband networks are created equal,” Watson said. “If you are providing a better solution in broadband, your pricing can reflect that.”

For Comcast customers using a terabyte or more in a month, after two courtesy months of penalty fees being waived, Comcast will recommend signing up for its Unlimited Data Option, which costs $50 a month. If you do not enroll and exceed your allowance a third time, the company will bill you overlimit fees: $10 for each additional block of 50 GB of usage. The maximum overlimit penalty in any single month is a whopping $200.

Critics of Comcast’s data caps point out that Charter — the nation’s second largest cable operator, has no usage caps at all. Optimum (Altice) also does not impose data caps. Those that do often copy Comcast’s data allowances and overlimit fees exactly — all to deal with so-called “data hogs” that the companies themselves claim represent fewer than 1% of subscribers.

Capped Comcast Customers Play Columbo to Identify Data Hogging Services

Nathan Gray woke up one morning this month and received an alarming notification from Comcast, his internet provider, claiming he had exceeded his Comcast terabyte data cap and was being billed an additional $10 for a 50 GB allotment of extra data.

“This has never happened before and I was only six days into my monthly billing cycle, so I assumed it must be a mistake,” Gray told Stop the Cap! “But Comcast told me it wasn’t a mistake.”

Gray was hardly alone. One month earlier, “Bogreenwoo” discovered his family had blown the roof off their internet usage, exceeding 1 TB by the middle of the billing cycle, with more usage piling up hour after hour.

“Xfinity was adding 50 GB blocks every day at $10 each and calls to tech support were no help,” he shared on Comcast’s customer support forum.

Similar complaints are brought up on that forum at least weekly, if not more often. Comcast counterclaims that usage exceeding 1 TB a month is so rare, it represents only about 1% of its customer base. But customers with huge internet bills from Comcast who stumble their way to the company’s support forum strongly dispute that notion.

“Well good luck with finding a solution or even finding anyone at Comcast who cares or anyone anywhere else as far as that goes,” shared “Amaasing.” “I have had this issue more than once and have talked with every vice president of customer service and had discussions with the security department and even filed a complaint with the FCC and nothing happened at all.”

Some users, like Amaasing, have received so many bills stung with overlimit fees they now turn their computers off in the evening and unplug their cable modems. In many cases the usage keeps rising anyway.

“Today when I logged in, I had apparently used 196 GB yesterday,” Amaasing wrote. “196 GB in 24 hours?  Seriously?”

For most customers in this predicament, Comcast is quick to blame customers for the usage and leave the detective work up to them. Customer support will not entertain suggestions their usage meter is inaccurate. In their view, it is more likely someone is illicitly connected to your Wi-Fi and stealing your service or you are running some bandwidth-heavy application or your computer has been hijacked by hackers or pirates.

While you are left to investigate which of these might be true, Comcast is free to continue billing your account overlimit fees.

Comcast claims it will forgive customers who exceed their data allowance twice ‘a year’:

“We’ll provide you with two courtesy months, so you will not be billed the first two times you exceed a terabyte while you are getting used to the new data usage plan. This means that you will only be subject to overage charges if you use more than a terabyte for a third time in a 12-month period. If you use more than a terabyte two times or less in a 12-month period, your courtesy month balance will reset to two at the end of these 12 months. However, if you use more than a terabyte three times in a 12-month period, no more courtesy months will be given.”

After “courtesy months” expire, you are on the hook for whatever excess usage Comcast determines you have consumed. Some Comcast customers assume the courtesy month counter resets each calendar year, but in fact it only resets after 12 consecutive months of staying within your allowance limit.

What causes “excess usage” is anyone’s guess. Comcast customers have documented several recent causes why they have mysteriously started blowing through their 1 TB data allowance:

  1. The growing prevalence of 4K video, the highest streaming video quality available through online video streaming services can be responsible for a sudden spike of usage. Netflix and other services that support 4K video content with high dynamic range can eat up 7 GB to 10 GB of data per hour. Many services allow you to downgrade your video settings with minimal quality loss. We recommend trying settings typically labeled 720 or 1080 — the lower the better if you are running up against your allowance.
  2. Third party backup and cloud storage tools: That online backup or cloud storage service you are using may be malfunctioning. There are several reports about Amazon Drive having problems recently, causing files to be repeatedly transferred and driving up usage to several hundred gigabytes a day in some cases. If you use Amazon Drive and have seen a huge spike in usage, try uninstalling or turning off the service for several days and see if usage falls dramatically. Other file and computer backup services that store your data in the cloud can consume a lot of data, especially when installing them on a new computer for the first time. Even some cell phone backup services designed to store your photos in the cloud can malfunction and repeatedly try to send the same photos over and over. Disable these tools for several days and check your usage levels.
  3. Third party usage: Family members doing something bandwidth intensive can also be responsible for dramatic usage spikes. Although downloading video game updates can consume very large amounts of data, game play itself typically has little impact on your data usage. Check with family members to see if they are watching high bandwidth video or have installed a file backup service. Less common is an uninvited guest on your Wi-Fi network. Comcast often points to Wi-Fi security as a major problem when a neighbor gains access to your internet connection to download huge numbers of files. You can change your Wi-Fi password to help lock down your network. Make sure not to use plain word passwords — use a mixture of letters, numbers, and symbols.
  4. Comcast’s meter is simply inaccurate. There is no independent third-party verification or government oversight of Comcast’s usage meter. Most ISPs hire a third-party contractor to design and implement their data measurement meters, but those contractors are ultimately answerable to the provider — not to you, giving little peace of mind to consumers who are forced to trust their cable company to be honest. Our country’s Founding Fathers placed great importance on accurate measuring and weighing tools, so much so it is addressed in Section VIII of Article I of the U.S. Constitution. That section gives authority to Congress to establish accurate and regulated measurement tools. Each state has their own way of managing this, often with a bureau of weights and measurements that independently verifies and certifies — with a tamper-evident sticker, the accuracy of the food scale at your local grocer or the gas pump at a nearby service station. Comcast has resisted similar third-party oversight for its usage meter. But considering the company’s overlimit fees can add a substantial sum to customer bills, having this kind of oversight seems appropriate.

Avoiding the usage cap: Comcast ironically provides its own insurance plan to protect customers from its own arbitrary data allowance. For peace of mind, Comcast collects an extra $50 a month ($20 for gigabit speed DOCSIS 3.1 plans) if you wish to waive the data cap altogether. Data caps are completely under the control of Comcast and are especially prevalent in regions of the country where a lack of competition exists. But Comcast’s arguments in favor of data caps don’t wash at the nation’s second largest cable company – Charter Communications, which markets its internet service as having no data caps at all. In fact, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge never saw much use for data caps at Charter or Cablevision, the company he used to head.

Debunking arguments for usage caps at Comcast and other ISPs. (5:46)

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