The Comcast Throttling Scandal And Its Consequences, Summarized

NPR spoke with Daniel Roth, a senior writer at Wired Magazine, over the file sharing fiasco that Comcast found itself in about a year ago—the one where a Comcast customer discovered that the company was secretly impersonating his computer to interrupt bittorrent transmissions.

If you missed the story the first time around, here’s a two-minute recap that will fill you in on what Comcast was doing, how they were caught, what the FCC had to say about it, and the consequences of the whole ordeal. (Hello download caps and tiered packages!)

“The Die is Cast” [On the Media @ NPR]

RELATED
our posts on the scandal
(Photo: Comcast)

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  1. Velifer says:

    Download caps? Tiered packages? In what terrifying *future* will these things come to pass?

    I have hughes.net. Usage is capped to 250MB per day. Packages are tiered. This is not new, this predates Comcast, and this sucks. I’d be happy to change to Comcast, believe it or not, it would be an improvement!

    • Saboth says:

      @Velifer:

      250 mb a day? I hope it costs $15 a month for such paltry service.

      “Lookout guys, I’m about to frag their flag carrier! Wtf? Disconnected? Oh, I reached my daily cap. Guess I’ll go watch some videos online…hmm can’t do that…email? No…chat….no…..guess I’ll go read a book”

    • Tetrine says:

      @Velifer:
      Believe me, there is no good reason, EVER to switch to Comcast, caps or not.

    • Holo20 says:

      @Velifer: Yes, but with Hughes, or any satellite-based internet, I find usage-capping to not only be expected, but maybe even reasonable. In their case there truly could be a bandwidth issue, it is a completely different technology than terrestrial-based internet.

      With any of the other providers (Comcast etc.) I simply find it greedy and highly anti-consumer.

    • matt1978 says:

      @Velifer: The cost of boonie living. Is there no mobile broadband coverage? My parents (rural W TN) and my cousin (rural M TN) both get pretty good connections with AT&T.

      • Ninjanice says:

        @matt1978: Then you’re capped at 5GB/mo which is about 170MB/day. And Mobile Broadband coverage is often pretty shotty in rural areas. You can probably get a connection, but the speeds are often going to be slow.

    • Coles_Law says:

      @Velifer: 250 MB/day is actually not bad-I get 1 GB/month (super cheap service-I could choose more if I paid more).

  2. phoenix6666 says:

    I remember when this all broke not to long ago. Now that everything has settled, I wonder who the winner is in all of this.

  3. scoobydoo says:

    I don’t think there is a clear winner or loser here. Comcast always had a cap, but they never admitted how much it was. They’d sometimes cut someone off, and say they used “too much”, without revealing their definition of “too much”.

    Now we have a clear cap, and in my opinion one that is fairly generous. Of course, I’d prefer no cap, but that just isn’t the way Comcast works.

    • Cyberxion101 says:

      @scoobydoo: I made a big stink about this awhile back, simply because Comcast has said, in spite of their advertising language, that they’ve always had a cap. How can you advertize unlimited bandwidth when you have a cap? Isn’t that false advertising?

      The actual cap itself is generous indeed, but the disparity between what they’re still advertising to this day and the reality of what you’re getting really pisses me the hell off.

      • econobiker says:

        @Cyberxion101: Maybe they were thinking like this: unlimited bandwith : the ability to download huge amounts but limited download sizes.

        Sure their Ferrari can go 180mph but the speed limit is only 55mph…

    • u235sentinel says:

      @scoobydoo:

      Here’s something to think about.

      Today it’s a generous cap. Tomorrow it won’t be.

      The Internet is getting larger not shrinking and neither is the content. We now have HD movies for free provided by companies. Shows like Heroes are available for anyone with a computer and a browser to watch!

      That takes a great deal of bandwidth.

      Competition… not this government monopoly crap we have but real competition will change all this.

      Look at what’s happening with cell phone plans. We’ve gone from so many minutes to unlimited plans all over the place now. I’m sure there is a limit somewhere BUT it’s now advertised as unlimited.

      Why?

      Because they are trying to entice us to sign up. Competition will do that.

      Companies like Concast simply don’t care because once they have you, all your base belong to us.

      You ‘might’ have a slower option available. DSL for example. But that’s no more competition than a Motorcycle is compared to a bicycle.

      If we had two or three companies providing the same services in an area, then you will see prices dropping and services increasing. Look around at other industries. It happens all the time.

      A monopoly is when a company provides services which are good for the company and not necessarily good for the customer.

  4. RogueSophist says:

    Ugh. The bandwidth cap is awful for people who watch a good deal of streaming content, not to mention those who enjoy online gaming and downloadable game content. It’s much easier than most people think to get to 250GB, and doubly awful when most people have no means to accurately gauge bandwidth over a 30-day period.

    Not to mention the clear conflict of interest here:

    1. Bandwidth use increases as streaming content becomes more popular.

    2. Cable TV viewing decreases as streaming content becomes more popular.

    3. Comcast hates this; institutes strict bandwidth cap “to ensure quality Internet access for everyone,” with the convenient corollary of keeping cable TV relevant for the near future.

    4. (of course!) Profit.

    • Cyberxion101 says:

      @RogueSophist: Someone really needs to light a fire under Comcast’s ass so that they’ll finally get around to providing us a bandwidth monitor.

      McAfee has one built in, but it resets itself every time you reboot your computer, and if you forget to write it down beforehand, or if your power goes out before you get the chance to do it, then you’re left wondering how much bandwidth you’ve used.

      That said, if McAfee’s monitor is at all accurate, then the most I’ve ever used in one month is 160GB, and I watch a lot of videos, play a lot of games online, and listen to a lot of streaming audio.

      250GB is not bad cap, and honestly I’ve stopped monitoring it altogether in the last few months because when I did, I was still like 100GB off the limit by the end of the month. I figure I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing, and they’ll let me know if I go over. It’s all a crap-shoot anyway, but it’s all I can do for a lack of a better alternative.

  5. LadySiren is murdering her kids with HFCS and processed cheese says:

    I’m less perturbed by the cap than I am by Comcast impersonating the customer (or his computer, anyway). Does that somehow constitute identity theft?

  6. b612markt says:

    Ugh, this always makes me so glad I can choose RCN over Comcast in my neighborhood.

  7. Janet Altman says:

    I think the issue here is not that Comcast made the decision to limit bandwidth but that they were TRANSPARENT about it. They didn’t inform their clients and/or give them the choice not to use their service.

    That is absolutely not acceptable. It’s profit by deception.

    Now you will have competitors popping up (not a bad idea) that will market that digital security can be use to help the client not hinder the clients usage.

    My favorite site that outlines this kind of thing usually is [www.justaskgemalto.com.]

    What they always like to reiterate is that digital security is a work in progress and has to be used with great integrity, not as a way to turn a profit from an unwilling customer.

    • Tiber says:

      @Janet Altman: The issue is that they were NOT transparent about it, but that’s only part of it.

      The other issue, of course, is not that they throttled Bittorrent, but how. They didn’t limit bandwidth speeds, they dropped connections. Imagine if your cell phone company didn’t like how many minutes you were using on an unlimited plan, so every now and then they dropped the call and claimed it was because the other person’s cell phone lost its signal. They also flat-out denied they were doing this until the Free Press confronted them with evidence.

      When they had a public hearing about it, Comcast hired people to fill seats to prevent interested (and hostile) parties from attending.

      I have no problem with the idea that they should be able to limit excessive users, but the way they wen’t about it the wrong way. I also think they should not be able to advertise their services as “unlimited” if they are, in fact, limited.

      • Haltingpoint says:

        @Tiber: Close, but its more like your cell phone company didn’t like how how long you were on the phone with a specific person, and then decided to drop all calls to that specific person, ie. selective service.

        The second Comcast starts monitoring your traffic to selectively do things like this, they lose their common carrier status.

        • Tiber says:

          @Haltingpoint: No, you are free to continue to use Bittorrent. Bittorrent essentially links up computers to send data between them. What Comcast would do is send fake messages that the other person disconnected. You are still perfectly free to connect to anyone, including that same user all over again.

          You are right that it was selective to Bitorrent, but beyond that it didn’t stop anything, it just put up speed bumps to slow you down.

  8. headhot says:

    250GB is a lot, but, I’m currently downloading the raw HD footage of the last NIN tour over bit torrent and its 400GB. To top that off, its 100% legal. So, if I attempt to get it, Comcast is going to cap me.

    • GTI2.0 says:

      @headhot: “Cap you” is incorrect for what they’re going to do. They’re going to throttle you in the event that another customer asks for, or is in contention with, bandwidth that you’re asking for. 99% of the time this isn’t the case.

      • ionerox says:

        @GTI2.0: Unless, of course, he means “cap you”, as “put a cap in you”. Comcast is going to go all gangsta on his a**.

      • orlo says:

        @GTI2.0: No, they’ll send a warning letter. I think they give you three warnings and then they cancel your service. People seem to have a hard time understanding that the cap was created to banish heavy users from the internet.

  9. dreamsneverend says:

    The best part is with the rollout of DOCSIS 3.0 and 50+Mbit speeds you too can reach your cap even quicker!!

  10. coan_net says:

    As others have said, Comcast has always had a cap – but in the past they would never tell you what the cap was. They would tell you when you were over, but when you ask what the limit was – they would not tell you.

    That is like driving down the road with no posted speed limit signs. The cop will pull you over and ticket you for speeding – but will not tell you what the speed limit actually is – just that it was less than what you were driving and leave it to you to try to figure it out… or get another ticket.

  11. LastVigilante says:

    Let us not forget that there was the whole Comcastards Incident of February 2008, where Comcast paid a bunch of rubes to fill seats at the FCC Net Neutrality hearing. Though not solely responsible for my decision, it helped sway my choice to move to a town that allows alternatives to Comcast, alternatives that I am now very happily giving my money.

  12. WBrink says:

    This is a really great piece and Consumerist should get credit for bringing a lot of Comcast pieces to the forefront of consumer news, especially with the “invisible cap” stuff that this NPR show directly talks about.

  13. oneandone says:

    I love OTM but was saving this episode for listening for tomorrow’s commute. Now I am extra eager to hear it.

  14. qcgallus says:

    Is it just me or is President Obama about to install that guys DVR box?

    I have a feeling that this is just the beginning. I was looking at Qwest services in my area (Minneapolis) and they are divided into 4 tiers, I think, all based on Mbs. I’m surprised comcast didn’t do this earlier.

    Also, if comcast impersonated another computer (I’m guessing through an IP spoofer?) can I impersonate my neighbor’s computer to download plenty of MPAA protected content? I’ll take my answer off the air.

  15. shepd says:

    Pfffft. That’s nothing. This is the scenario up north for most DSL customers:

    - You subscribe to provider X. They have internet links and they have a link to Bell Canada.
    – Bell Canada provisions a DSL port to your home from the DSLAM (basically, the box on your street).
    – You provider pays Bell Canada ~$20 (per tariff) for this port, the port is to provide a best effort maximum speed of 5 mbits.
    – Your traffic (of any kind) on your DSL link enters Bell’s “cloud” (to be techinal, BRAS) and is routed directly to your ISP.
    – To handle this traffic, your ISP has paid a set amount per mbit capacity for a link to Bell Canada, generally via an ERX (several thousand dollars per month for many ISPs).
    – Your ISP routes your traffic to the internet (more specifically, to a Tier 1 ISP).

    The reason you have Bell Canada in the mix is because of their monopoly position in Canada. It was a requirement they sell access to their DSL ports to others. Bell makes tonnes of money via this arrangement on both sides. Due to the vastness of Canada, and regulations that, for many years, did not permit ISPs to access DSLAMs or COs (and they are still extremely restrictive even today) this was often the only reasonable choice for DSL for an ISP.

    Early last year, without informing any ISPs whatsoever, Bell Canada unilaterally began throttling traffic via DPI (since the traffic is PPPoE encapsulated, there is no way to do it on layer 3 as an ISP would) as they see fit for 10 hours a day. After several months of complaints from customers, ISPs began investigating what is going on (they could see their traffic graphs drop significantly when throttling was enabled).

    ISPs contacted Bell Canada for an answer. Bell Canada maintained, via public statements and leaked documents from ISPs that is has absolutely no DPI hardware nor is it finding another method to throttle traffic. The links are clean, they said.

    After a few more weeks, Bell Canada admitted that it had been implementing DPI for several months and that it was throttling. Bell Canada would still not state when, how, or what it was throttling.

    The CRTC (Like your FCC, but much further reaching when it comes to media–The USA has no equivalent agency since what the CRTC does directly violates multiple parts of the US constitution) was requested by ISPs to rule on whether or not this throttling action was legal.

    Bell provided documents that, when released to the public for inspection by the CRTC, were HEAVILY redacted, stating that if they did not do this, ATM frame loss would bring down their network. Based on the redacted documents, there was no solid evidence of this. And, furthermore, the vast majority of frame loss was due to Bell Canada’s decision to link up DSLAMs to COs via 200 mbit copper links, rather than 1 gbit fibre links as virtually all other DSL providers do.

    The CRTC, based primarily on the redacted portions of the document, sided with Bell, giving Bell the specific permission to “Manage it’s network as is necessary”. The only restriction is that Bell must now give ISPs 30 days advance notice of any new changes.

    All DSL routed via Bell Canada (the majority is) remains throttled. Due to the inherent privacy risks from DPI (targeted ad insertion, targeted information sniffing, man-in-the-middle attacks on encryption, illicit wiretapping) Canada’s privacy commissioner is now battling the CRTC over this issue. It is strongly expected he will be ignored. Because…

    The CRTC, while a Canadian Government owned entity permitted to enact laws (a crown corporation), is chaired in majority by strong stakeholders in Rogers and Bell Canada (and a few other major communications industry players).

    And you think Comcast sucks? You haven’t seen ANYTHING yet. Imagine being a provider that prided itself on offering truly unlimited service (My ISP has customers that transfer over 1 TB a month via DSL without hearing a complaint, ever. And the OWNER has commented to them that it’s A-OK with him) that would NEVER, EVER throttle being forced to deal with this.

    A few ISPs in Canada have taken to using countermeasures against DPI, FWIW they generally do work, but it shows you the type of relationship these companies have with Bell.

  16. allstarecho says:

    And they are still blocking bittorrent downloads. They can lie all they want and say they aren’t but I have experienced it just recently.

  17. vastrightwing says:

    Has Google setup its site where you can test to see if your ISP is messin with your connection?

  18. cyberscribe says:

    Any ISP’s that continue to market reasonably cheap no-cap, no-throttling nationwide high-speed broadband service will rapidly grab most of the total market share (that is already happening, in fact) and they will eventually bankrupt all those other companies out there that don’t follow suit.

    The laws of supply and demand guarantee it, though it will take some time for “loser” companies like Comcast, Time Warner, etc to slowly starve to death and disappear, or be bought out and their networks absorbed.

    • captainfrizo says:

      @cyberscribe:

      While I understand where you’re coming from, I don’t see them starving to death like you say.

      Comcast is so heavily entrenched in so many major markets (and in all likelihood the backpockets of local and federal government officials as well) that they aren’t going anywhere.

      The moment they notice another smaller rival is starting to become a bit of a nuisance they’ll do what they always do: either buy them outright or do just enough in whatever market is being threatened with lower pricing, features, etc. to cause the rival to lose its market share and either collapse or accept the buyout offer.

      Comcast has more money than it knows what to do with and is set-up for survival over the long haul. They aren’t going anywhere.

    • orlo says:

      @cyberscribe: Competition rarely works. No new company can possibly come up the money to build a nationwide fiber network, and none of the big regional monopolies will interfere with each other’s business. The only thing to look forward to in the future is the shrink-ray hitting the caps.

    • Ninjanice says:

      @cyberscribe: You’d think that that’s what would happen, but not likely. The problem is money. A small company isn’t going to have the funds to put up a network. Finding investors is difficult without a crappy economy because many do not want to compete with larger companies. It’s kind of like opening up a mom and pop burger joint between McDonalds and Burger King. Sure, you’d get some customers, but would you be able to make a profit?

  19. majortom1029 says:

    This si one reason why i like cablevision. They stopped it. No badnwidth caps and no throttling.

    I can never figure out why cablevision can offer the services that they do and the other cablecompanies can’t.

  20. Kevin Mills says:

    I read stories about how terrible Comcast is, and I get the urge to cancel my broadband service.

    then I remember that Comcast is the only option out here.

  21. David Alexander McDonald says:

    And now they’re introducing Comcast OnDemand Online — complete, I’m sure, with added overage fees and shut-offs for when your TV catch-up blows your cap.

  22. quizmasterchris says:

    Where’s Frank & Bonnie?!

    “We have deceptive business practices! LOL *grin*…”

    The caps are part of what turn me off to the increasingly complex streaming ads you get. Who wants to pay to involuntarily watch commercials?

    I agree 100% w/ the poster who commented that the caps also make retaining cable TV more attractive.

    Comcast: worst… company… EVER.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Here is my experience. Last May my hard drive crashed with a lot of movies and TV shows. So I went to “the usual places” to get it all back plus more. I had “the usual places” running at about 2MB/s for a long, long time. (3-4 weeks nearly nonstop). One Friday night (they always seem to do it on Friday when the local office is closed) my internet was off. When I called I was told by the tech to call a “special” number because I had been blocked. I called and was told I had violated the Fair Access policy but it was probably my neighbors sucking my wireless bandwidth. I admitted I had been D/Ling massive amounts but they kept telling me I needed to to on my wireless security. I said I don’t like having my wireless security on but it was my own fault. They seemed to ignore me and read me their policy of wireless security and told me if it happened again they would not turn it back on.

    I asked them why they didn’t email me, since they were my email provider, but they said they called several times (they didn’t) and couldn’t get through. I agreed to be good and I asked them what the limit was, they wouldn’t tell me, they said it was “an aggregate” and that I had D/Led 575GB in 1 month.

    They turned it back on but then I got a satellite dish and the Olympics came so I used the Video on Demand for a lot of HD events. That must have pushed me over the limit again as one Friday night I was cut off again. This time all I was told was it was canceled and there was nothing they could do for a year. Surprisingly, the next morning it came back on and I continued to use it for 6 months without getting a bill. Then it went off but a very nice fellow on the tech support line it turned back on a gave me a special $44 rate for the next year.

  24. rfjson says:

    I wonder how our buddy Frank eLIARson will spin this article.