Comcast starts acting like a phone company

Comcast has all but confirmed that they are moving forward with a plan to implement clear bandwidth caps and overage fees in their cable internet service plans. This would mean that very heavy users of their internet service would be charged higher rates once they pass a certain monthly limit, currently proposed at 250GB.

I don’t have much respect for Comcast, and I’m always wary of any sort of entrenched monopoly doing anything that has the potential to harm customers, but at first blush this seems like a reasonable, open, and equitable solution to an ongoing and vexing problem. It is true that new internet applications increasingly focus on things like streaming video and moving around large chunks of data, and so-called “unlimited” broadband is an important component in the growth of these new services. In an ideal world, bandwidth would be plentiful and cheap.

Right now, in the US broadband market, bandwidth is somewhat constrained, but generally not terribly expensive. However, cable and telephone companies — the primary providers of service to something like 90% of American broadband users — feel that to expand and improve their aging and sometimes decrepit cable plant, they need to find new revenue models. Their other ideas include strange behavior like messing with internet protocols at a very low level to surreptitious disrupt certain types of traffic (and thus save their bandwidth bills by stymying heavy users), as well as the ludicrous idea of demanding that content providers pay for the bandwidth that their readers and viewers use. These violations of the concept of “network neutrality” would be harmful to pretty much everyone, except the broadband providers, who would make a bundle.

In that context, Comcast’s new idea of imposing reasonable bandwidth caps and charging reasonable overage fees, with reasonable procedures in place to inform customers and give them the occasional free pass, all in an open and documented and agreed to way, is the best thing I’ve heard so far in this whole ridiculous debate. Sure, I wouldn’t be thrilled to have my internet bill go up, and I’d certainly worry about whether Comcast might decide at some point to start lowering quotas and tightening enforcement. In a free market, all of these things would be fine, because more information would allow consumers to make more informed choices, including the choice to leave a company that is giving them a bad deal. Broadband internet is not a free market, but, in many markets, it is becoming an increasingly competitive one, as cablecos and telcos poach each other’s subscribers. We can rely on market forces, to a point, to keep providers like Comcast in line, and we can rely on increased scrutiny by the FCC, Congress, and the press to hold them to their commitments.

And so with all of those caveats and worries in mind, I accept, if not applaud, Comcast’s new direction, and look forward with at least a tiny bit of optimism and hope that perhaps there is light at the end of the net neutrality tunnel.