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Comcast’s New Traffic Meter Makes Customer The Traffic Cop; Admits Up to 1GB Represents “Background Traffic”

Phillip Dampier December 3, 2009 Comcast/Xfinity, Data Caps 41 Comments
Comcast's new usage gauge is being tested in Oregon

Comcast's new usage gauge is being tested in Oregon

Comcast’s long promised “usage gauge” has arrived.  The company promised to provide one to customers more than a year ago when it imposed a 250GB monthly usage limit on its residential broadband accounts.  Although generous in comparison to some other providers that limit customers to as little as 1-5GB of usage per month, Comcast’s allowance and the meter re-emphasizing it has created controversy among customers concerned about usage caps, potential overlimit fees or speed throttles.

Stop the Cap! reader “bones” sent along word of the measurement tool beta test in the Portland, Oregon area, and reviewing the accompanying data exposes some inconvenient facts such usage limits will have on customers.

Comcast’s version of the ‘gas gauge’ depicts usage on a bar graph and is updated monthly.  Company officials claim the average user consumes just 2-4 gigabytes per month, a debatable figure.  Comcast claims about 1% of their subscribers exceed 250GB of usage per month, but does not indicate whether that number has been on the increase as the company unveils new premium speed, premium priced broadband tiers.

Comcast hired NetForecast to “independently” verify the accuracy of the meter, which they claim produces results within 0.5% accuracy.

The company’s report concludes with praise for Comcast’s new meter, claiming it “will shine a new light on a previously unknown and misunderstood aspect of the digital age. NetForecast believes that this information will allow consumers to become better informed, and better informed consumers will help positively shape the Internet’s future.”

It also increases resentment towards a company that makes them check a meter to be sure they are within their “allowance” for the month, particularly when that company makes loads of money on broadband service.

NetForecast’s tests do reveal several new pieces of information to the “net meter” controversy:

  1. The company found up to 1GB of traffic per month represented “background traffic associated with modem management.”  That’s a considerable amount of data counted against a customer’s usage, especially for customers stuck on lower consumption usage plans;
  2. The increasing complexity of some web pages and their underlying structure can contribute to additional traffic associated with “protocol overhead”;
  3. Poorer line quality can result in increased traffic due to retransmission requests;
  4. “Unexpected” traffic is so substantial, it warranted its own section in the NetForecast report:

Traffic can be generated by more than just PCs. Any device that has access to the wireless router is a potential Internet traffic generator—including smart phones, game consoles, digital video recorders, printers, cameras, etc. Many non-PC devices “phone home” to a manufacturer or supporting service. These automated connections are transparent to the user as a convenience so the user is unaware of the traffic generated.

The most likely source of unexpected traffic, however, is from software running on PCs throughout the home. The Windows operating system and most popular software have automated update programs. These updates often download and are installed automatically without the need for user intervention. The automation is generally designed for the convenience and protection of the consumer, but the traffic it generates may come as a surprise.

Each program update download may be modest in size, however, when you multiply a modest download by the number of programs calling for updates and the number of PCs in the house, the traffic attributable to updates can be substantial. Furthermore, in some cases the vendor default update settings are very aggressive, with some default settings checking each hour and downloading every possible option even though they are not all needed. For example, a software program may load its interface in a dozen languages even though all household members only know how to read English.

That’s just the beginning.  The company also documented “surprise usage” from smartphones downloading updates, photo sharing sites, online backup, and other online applications.  Perhaps most important are online video services:

A large volume of traffic may be going to digital video recorders such as TiVo. A user in the home may have rented a movie from Amazon, Netflix. Blockbuster, etc. Renting the movie will be a known traffic-generating event, however, many services also preload the start of other movies as well as trailers to make them instantly available should they be called for. As in other situations described above, traffic is consumed for the consumer’s convenience but without his or her knowledge.

If Comcast’s meter results showing your usage doesn’t make sense and you don’t believe or understand the numbers, wait until you read how it is your responsibility, as a customer, to do all the sleuthing.

NetForecast’s prescription for “rogue traffic” requires the customer to shut off their computers and other connected devices for a “digitally silent” period (overnight or on a weekend when traveling).  Then, the customer gets to follow this routine:

At the end of the digital silence turn on one PC and log back into the Comcast meter portal, or you can check from an Internet cafe or other means while you are away. If true digital silence was achieved, the meter should not have incremented by more than 1GB. If there is more than 1GB use over even several days, then there is certainly some other traffic consumer connected through the router.

If the digital silence experiment worked, then carefully add devices back to the home network while watching the meter. Note that the meter only increments once per hour, so it may take some time to find a rogue traffic source. On the other hand, the home may simply be a highly connected place that is leveraging many aspects of the Internet, and the traffic may be entirely due to legitimate use.

“I guess those of us who are Comcast customers get to add this to our ‘list of things to do’ when we are trying to enjoy our broadband service,” writes Stop the Cap! reader Karen in Portland.  “Can you imagine telling a customer whose wireless wi-fi was ‘borrowed’ by a neighbor that they have to do all this when half the time, those customers don’t even understand how to enable wi-fi security?”

Each and every byte gets counted.  Almost.

Exempt from the usage meter are Comcast’s digital phone service and on-demand video services sent to your television. That’s a nice benefit for Comcast, but not so nice for their competitors, such as voice-over-IP telephone services and the aforementioned Netflix, Amazon, and other on-demand broadband video services. Programming sent to your computer over Comcast’s forthcoming TV Everywhere service does count against your allowance, however.

With a 250GB allowance, it may be some time before most customers find themselves routinely having to limit their usage to avoid exceeding it.  But that assumes Comcast doesn’t follow some other providers into a limbo dance of lowered usage allowances.  With a meter in place, it’s as simple as lowering the cap and telling the customer to check before they use.

What do Comcast customers think?  Comcast’s blog amusingly illustrates some company employees love it, and most consumers hate it:

“Finally! This is great stuff, I cannot wait for this to roll out in our market. We’ve been waiting and customers have been asking for months. Keep up the good work out there, and let’s never stop being innovative. We ROCK!” — Ozzie Navarro, presumably the ‘we’ is this instance refers to an author employed by Comcast.

“How is it great that you’re capping a service I pay monthly for at great expense? Now I can see it in a meter, wow! Upgrade your damn infrastructure to support more bandwidth instead of cutting off customers.” — Jason

“Don’t think you are fooling people by saying, ‘Only x% of people use over 250gb/month, and 1-x% of people won’t have to worry.’ Would you outright deny that you are implementing this feature because you feel your TV industry is threatened by Netflix, Slingbox, Hulu.com, et al.? You say it is to provide all users with a better experience. You say that because some people are “hogging the internet”, grandma can’t look at photos of her grandchildren fast enough. Did it ever occur to you that more people are using more web-intensive programs everyday? It’s not like bandwidth is a finite resource. As much as you guys want to say it is, bandwidth is only limited by ISPs. You love to say that your “networks are overburdened.” Hate to point out the obvious, but you are the ones selling the service so you should plan accordingly for usage. You sell people an advertised rate of 10Mbps, knowing full well that unless everyone else in their neighborhood is offline, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell you’ll get these speeds.

Then you have the nerve to say because so many people are “abusing their privilege” you must implement a bandwidth cap to “maintain the integrity of our networks.” I pay $50/month just to access this wonderful series of tubes known as the internet. When I was sold this plan, I was told very specifically that it was UNLIMITED.  That meant, if I maxed out my possible internet consumption everyday — no big deal — that’s what unlimited means. It’s becoming more and more obvious that this whole thing is a money grab, much like overdraft fees from our favorite financial institutions. I love how in the last comment you preach about rolling out your DOCSIS 3.0 system, which will supposedly let people have higher speeds. You don’t plan on upgrading the amount we can use per month though do you? That was suspiciously left absent from your article. Basically you are giving us the power use the internet in more innovative ways, but punishing us for trying to take advantage of your speeds. Thanks for giving me the ability to hit the upper limit more easily and quickly!” — Matt

“So a service whose advertising mentions NOTHING about data caps is actually capped, eh? That’s nice. It’s also really nice that you’re rolling out a faster product, so people can use up their allotted internet EVEN FASTER. Comcast doesn’t want people not paying for their ridiculously overpriced TV service, so they cripple their internet so you don’t have a choice. Really nice.” — Comcast customer

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Loons In June!
Loons In June!
12 years ago

Well written Article. I think what will come from this move by Comcast will be that the vast majority will see that they have nothing to fear. Unfortunately not many of them visit sites like DSLReports and this Blog. Casual Visitors will continue to be scared by those that consume bandwidth like my local cop consumes donuts. A 250 Gb is an enormous amount of data, Phil rightly posts some of the concerns of an independent company but as usual he puts his slant on it but he has every right as this is his site. Background traffic, a few… Read more »

Ron Dafoe
Ron Dafoe
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

The problem even with a 250Gb meter is as time goes on, more and more things for the PC will be purchased online. For instance – I just purchased Batman Arkam Asylum. It was about an 8Gb download. My kids routinely download demos from xbox live. I stream netflix ans well as VPN to work from home. While the most I have ever used since keeping track of my usage was 120Gb in a month, I am sure that number will go up as time goes on. Heck, anyone that works in the tech field could have 50 Gbs of… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

“Phil rightly posts some of the concerns of an independent company but as usual he puts his slant on it but he has every right as this is his site.” Of course there is a slant. The site is called “Stop The Cap!”. “250 Gb is an enormous amount of data…” I wouldn’t say “enormous”. And you know what scares me? It isn’t the caps these businesses want to implement because you can see it coming a mile away. It is people like you that have no foresight who want a cap on data. You think 250GB is big now… Read more »

tacitus
tacitus
12 years ago

Exempt from the usage meter are Comcast’s digital phone service and on-demand video services sent to your television. That’s a nice benefit for Comcast, but not so nice for their competitors, such as voice-over-IP telephone services and the aforementioned Netflix, Amazon, and other on-demand broadband video services. Phillip, have you done any research into what the content providers are saying and doing in the face of all these threats to start capping bandwidth? If Time Warner ever gets its way, customers are going to end up paying up to 90% of the fees accumulated while watching video services like MLBTV… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago
Reply to  tacitus

And wouldn’t exempting their services be a violation of Net Neutrality. I think this is a classic example of it.

Loons in June1
Loons in June1
12 years ago
Reply to  Tim

“And wouldn’t exempting their services be a violation of Net Neutrality. I think this is a classic example of it.”

Phone Traffic and Video on demand traffic are both handled completely differently than Internet traffic. Hell VOD does not even touch the modem.

Tim
Tim
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons in June1

It still gotta go over their pipe and use bandwidth bud whether it uses the Internet Protocol or not. What this does is punish competition from similar services like Vonage. That is my beef.

Loons in June!
Loons in June!
12 years ago
Reply to  Tim

As does ALL the TV being pipped into the house bud.
Vonage is routing their packets over the internet, Time Warner is not, you are comparing apples to ferrets.

BrionS
Editor
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons in June!

Just to be clear, Time Warner’s Digital Phone service is carried over the cable (as is everything from them) but uses TCP/IP just the same as Vonage. The difference between TW Digital Phone and Vonage is that Digital Phone customers would not have that IP traffic counted against their cap and Digital Phone packets would be given preference over all other types of TCP/IP traffic on TW’s networks. Net Neutrality or no, it seems to me this is anti-competitive behavior at its worst (finest?) – competitors cannot lay their own lines (cable co’s usually have a monopoly for the municipality… Read more »

tacitus
tacitus
12 years ago
Reply to  BrionS

Yeah, that though had crossed my mind when I was writing my comment. Exempting their own content when it would otherwise be counted against a customer’s cap would seem to be anti-competitive. Movies on demand would probably be OK, since you don’t have to have internet service to access it, but anything that’s transmitted to your IP address should be countable bandwidth, if a cap exists.

BrionS
Editor
12 years ago
Reply to  tacitus

I should mention that Time Warner Cable here in Rochester, NY did state at one point that digital phone service would count against your monthly data cap.

Loons In June!
Loons In June!
12 years ago
Reply to  BrionS

“cable co’s usually have a monopoly for the municipality or at the very least it’s incredibly hard to get permission to lay lines”

Not true. There is no monopoly at all and neither is it very hard. Its just incredibly expensive to built out the infrastructure.

Hob

Ron Dafoe
Ron Dafoe
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

What?!?

Can you explain?

Loons In June!
Loons In June!
12 years ago

Comparing a business decision (not to build out an extremely expensive infrastructure to compete with an already entrenched provider) to the mafia is pushing it even for you Phil.

I know its not fashionable to mention this but a companies first responsibility is to make money. This means they make decisions that you may not like.

Ron Dafoe
Ron Dafoe
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

So what would you call the agreement between Frontier and Verizon in Rochester NY?

jr
jr
12 years ago

This is one of the few sites that doesn’t have video ads. You’re going to use several gigs just on ads. This is corporate tyranny.

Loons In June!
Loons In June!
12 years ago
Reply to  jr

“This is one of the few sites that doesn’t have video ads. You’re going to use several gigs just on ads. This is corporate tyranny.”

Do you have any hard facts about video ads? Several Gigs? What sites are we talking about here?

Are you sure you are not addig to the scaremongering?

Tim
Tim
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

I think ads could rack up a significant portion of data that the user doesn’t want to be added into the mix. Usually it is the ads that hold up the loading of a website. However, with Firefox, I usually don’t see any since it has several plugins to block all of the crap out there.

KC
KC
12 years ago

Since they now have proof that background programs and ads use bandwidth that isn’t obvious to the user, they should add a few extra gigs of allowance to account for that. Of course with 250 GB it probably doesn’t even matter, but if TWC were to go through with its 40 GB limit it would definitely make a difference. Its more likely that ISPs will just say “Disable all that bandwidth-using stuff then. Oh, you don’t know how? Not our problem.” Another thing: 250 seems like a lot, but consider a household of college students, for example. Or a big… Read more »

GilliganLQ
GilliganLQ
12 years ago

I wonder if unsolicited inbound data to the modem would be exempt as well. If someone starts trying to get into my home network remotely and/or initiates a DDOS of sorts against my modem’s IP address, would that count against my usage? I’d like to see someone set up an experiment where they monitor all traffic passing through the modems ethernet port (to verify it’s as minimal as possible), and then just bombard the modem externally over the internet. Would it be possible to use up a customer’s monthly 250GB allowance in this manner? A proof of concept like this… Read more »

BrionS
Editor
12 years ago
Reply to  GilliganLQ

I’m pretty sure Time Warner’s response to this question during their capping experiment was that any traffic that reaches your modem counts against your cap. This includes unwanted traffic and bot-net attacks (in theory).

GilliganLQ
GilliganLQ
12 years ago
Reply to  BrionS

That’s exactly my point. Theoretically (and in this case, theory isn’t that far fetched), you could do everything possible to restrict your usage down to just about nothing, but still end up hitting the cap. I would just like to see someone prove it.

KC
KC
12 years ago
Reply to  GilliganLQ

I am positive they haven’t thought it through and will only think about it once it actually happens (and the victim makes a big deal out of it).

Loons In June!
Loons In June!
12 years ago

Phone packets are NOT dealt with the same way as internet traffic, the MTA has a separate interface and a separate IP address just as the Set top box has.

Ron Dafoe
Ron Dafoe
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

What your failing to understand is that he is talking about using their phone service instead of services such as Vonage. By making that traffic subject to caps, you create a natureal migration to your own services, that are not subject to caps – for whatever reason.

Loons In June!
Loons In June!
12 years ago
Reply to  Ron Dafoe

I totally understand the point that you are trying to make and quoting the phrase Network Neutrality to try and reinforce it.

If you feel that it is driving customers to give up their Vonage service to sign up for Cable digital phone service that’s ok as a point of view. However throwing about the words Network and neutrality is not accurate and continues the pattern of scaremongering.

Phone traffic is very economic in the terms of packets.

Ron Dafoe
Ron Dafoe
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

I consider it scare mongering the other way. This WILL be the conversation with the cable company: Cable: You know, we have phone service as well. Cust: Yea, I know, but I have Vonage and I like it. Cable: Oh, Vonage counts against our cap policy. If you use our phone service, you won’t have to worry about that coounting against your cap and having to pay overage fees. I understand it is not net nutrality, but to be honest, most people are not going ot know the difference. It is just the phone to them. If you do not… Read more »

BrionS
Editor
12 years ago
Reply to  Ron Dafoe

I just mentioned it above, but I’ll mention it here again just to help get this out… Time Warner Cable did state previously this summer that their digital phone service would be subject to any data caps on Internet usage the same as any other VoIP competitor would be. In that sense digital phone from TWC is at a great disadvantage because even Vonage (who I don’t care for) has more VoIP features and included nationwide long distance at a lower cost than digital phone from TWC. I rather enjoy getting calls from TWC asking me how much I spend… Read more »

Loons In June!
Loons In June!
12 years ago
Reply to  BrionS

“Time Warner Cable did state previously this summer that their digital phone service would be subject to any data caps on Internet usage the same as any other VoIP competitor would be.”

Do you have a link for that?

I sorta liked Vonage when I had it, their customer service sucked but I still have the Router they gave me.

BrionS
Editor
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

I believe JeffTWC on Twitter (@JeffTWC) said it which means it’s nearly impossible to find. I will ask him directly again and maybe get him to state it in a slightly more permanent location (even a.longreply.com would be better).

I apologize for the lack of link, i know it doesn’t scream “trustworthy” without some evidence. I’m still looking for some article from Ars Technica or GigaOM that may have picked up on that statement (because they follow all the TWC guys and gals on Twitter as well).

Update: Here’s my question to Jeff – http://twitter.com/BrionS/statuses/6389316707

BrionS
Editor
12 years ago
Reply to  Loons In June!

Totally agree about Vonage’s customer service. That combined with period loss of service for random amounts of time and no warnings, emails, or apologies I dropped them for Sunrocket. Sadly while Sunrocket was great they were also stupid and promoted themselves into insolvency. I’m now using a company called ViaTalk based near Albany, NY that offers everything Sunrocket did with better service and doesn’t rely only on VoIP as their revenue source. They’ve also been around for over 10 years so they have some ability to stick around.

BrionS
Editor
12 years ago

I withdraw my statement then. My apologies for dispensing incorrect information.

Ron Dafoe
Ron Dafoe
12 years ago
Reply to  BrionS

I don’t remember any statements that their phone service would count against their caps. I don’t think they ever said one way or the other officially.

Although I think there as alot of bad information given by TWC back then. I don’t think they really had a solid plan of what to do.

Tim
Tim
12 years ago
Reply to  Ron Dafoe

Who is CD and why is this guy copying and pasting something I said earlier?

Johnny Comelately
Johnny Comelately
12 years ago

This is to prevent online TV distribution from surpassing comcast’s. The average american spends 4 hours a day watching TV [1], or roughly 210 hours a month. The average compression rate for HDTV is 7-8 Mbps [2]. Divide the bitrate by 8 to translate bits to bytes, multiply by 60 to get minutes, again for hours, and you have (BR/8*60*60) = 3150-3600 MB per hour for 1080p, 2250-2700 MB/h for 720p, and 450-900 MB/h for SDTV. 210*.9 = 189GB per month for SDTV, and 472.5GB per Month for 720p. Even 189 GB comes pretty darn close to the limit, and… Read more »

Loons In June!
Loons In June!
12 years ago

“The average american spends 4 hours a day watching TV [1], or roughly 210 hours a month. ”

4 hours a day x 30 days in a month is 120 hours.

Thanks

Khamfong
Khamfong
12 years ago

I’m at 263GB and I’m going to be way over the 250GB limit. I guess I fit the 1% of what comcast says about average bandwidth consumption. Luckily, I’m in Portland, OR and we have lots of ISP’s that will exceed 4mb/s and offer unlimited plans. A good example would be Clear which provide up to 6mbps for only 45/month. That’s not bad and you don’t have to bother with checking that stupid meter. It’s just sad that comcast had to result to this cap, but oh well technology just keeps advancing and putting a cap will just make people… Read more »

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