Let’s talk about the broadband-cap gap

Updated: The cautionary tales around broadband caps are trickling in, with the latest coming from Andr√© Vrignaud, who detailed in a blog post his experience of being cut off from Comcast’s (s cmcsa) Internet service after going over the company’s 250 GB per month broadband cap two months in a row. He’s justifiably outraged because he now has no Internet and he didn’t really seem to have a lot of options offered before he was cut off. My colleague Mathew experienced a similar issue with his cap, and I suspect the two stories have something in common — the cloud.

Or rather, backups of huge files. After Mathew was forced to become a network cop and figure out why he was going so far over his monthly bandwidth allotment of 95 GB per month, it took him about a month to determine the culprit — an inappropriately configured cloud-backup service with Amazon. Judging from Vrignaud’s story, he may have hit his cap doing backups as well, since he describes backing up RAW image files and FLAC audio files to a recently purchased Carbonite subscription. He also describes streaming Netflix movies and Pandora in a home with multiple roommates, as well as working from home on digital files. We’ve driven this point home before in a multitude of posts about how caps harm innovation and how they will catch more and more users over time.

But in reading this case and talking to Charlie Douglas, a Comcast spokesman, several other issues around caps came up. Issues that are more important as more users have caps. I’ve long appreciated that Comcast’s cap was pretty fair: It discloses the limits, it has a reasonable network management plan, it offers a meter and — most importantly — the cable provider says that as the median usage increases on its network, it will raise that cap. However, since the cap was implemented in 2008, when Comcast had a median usage of between 2 and 4 GB per month across its entire network, the median usage has risen only to between 4 GB and 6 GB per month. The cap hasn’t increased by a commensurate amount and Douglas was adamant in pointing out that using 250 GB a month was way above normal usage.

But what I took away from my conversation with Douglas is that the web ecosystem is failing consumers (and maybe teleworkers) when it comes to broadband and cloud services. Here’s why:

When there’s a problem, it’s hard for a consumer to know what to do: Mathew and Vrignaud both tried to take action to reduce their bandwidth consumption after being called on their excessive usage. Both failed at first to solve it after taking actions such as turning off public access points (and in Mathew’s case checking for an infected computer). Both of these guys are pretty technically savvy so imagine what happens if a normal person gets such a call. ISPs don’t provide the appropriate resources beyond notification and what Vrignaud called a “canned response.”

As people adopt cloud services, those providers don’t think about broadband: Short of Netflix taking up the crusade against caps, we don’t see Amazon, Mozy (s emc) or Carbonite helping to educate users about how their services and settings for backups might influence their broadband caps. I don’t think they should have to get into this education campaign in an ideal world, but for now, we live in a world with caps. Helping customers avoid getting kicked offline or charged extra for overages is good customer service.

Residential service isn’t clear-cut anymore: When looking at this guy’s usage, it’s possible that he was using his connection for work, which prompted Douglas to point out that he had signed up for a residential connection. This is a common ISP response when people bemoan their limited caps in the context of uploading files or sharing videos as part of their jobs. But when I asked if Vrignaud would even be eligible for a business connection, Douglas didn’t know. He said that the business people would want to make sure the connection was for a legitimate business which means they would ask for a Tax ID number or some other verification. While a freelancer might have that, a remote worker wouldn’t and would then have to get their employer involved in getting a connection. In some cases, although not necessarily in this one, folks in residential areas cannot even get a business connection. Update: Vrignaud said in a conversation and in his latest blog post that he is trying to get a business connection, but it doesn’t look good.

In my many stories about broadband caps these issues haven’t really come up very often, but I think that’s about to change. And it leaves me with more questions than answers. As residential broadband becomes essential for how we do our jobs, as well as for consumer entertainment and other web-based products, it’s time for big companies to start taking a hard look at how ISPs policies will affect their employees and their ability to offer services and perhaps give a call to their favorite lobbyist. If left unchecked, this won’t stay a consumer issue for very long.

As for Comcast, when I asked if customers were getting caught in its cap more often, Douglas replied,”We don’t disclose, but logically people are doing more online and have more devices. Far less than 1 percent of our customers should ever get a call from us.” That’s not a real answer, but with 17.4 million broadband subscribers it sounds like we should expect to hear more stories on this issue in the coming months — but fewer than 174,000 of them.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr users Ryan Franklin and Arthur Caranta