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4/03/2008 1:00 AM

Talk about a big ol’ asterisk.

Comcast is launching commercial DOCSIS 3.0 service in Minneapolis/St. Paul with 50 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up — more than five times its previously fastest package of 8 Mbps down and 768 Kbps up. It’s an "extreme high-speed Internet service," according to Comcast. 

With the new service, "customers will be able to download movies, music and television shows, as well as upload digital photographs faster than ever," the MSO promises.

Except that subscribers shouldn’t expect to actually get to use that full 50/5 Mbps link 24/7.

The fine print in the Comcast.net Terms of Service says, under the heading "Network Management and Limitations on Bandwidth Consumption":

Comcast reserves the right to suspend or terminate Service accounts where bandwidth consumption is not characteristic of a typical residential user of the Service as determined by the company in its sole discretion. Common activities that may cause excessive bandwidth consumption in violation of this Policy include, but are not limited to, numerous or continuous bulk transfers of files and other high capacity traffic using (i) file transfer protocol ("FTP"), (ii) peer-to-peer applications, and (iii) newsgroups, whether provided by Comcast or a third party.

As DSLReports.com and other blogs pointed out, Comcast inserted this language into the TOS in January, amid the brouhaha over Comcast’s throttling of P2P traffic.

Since then Comcast has turned over a new leaf, at least in its public statements on the P2P issue, announcing that it’s working with BitTorrent and others to make file-sharing applications work better.

So Comcast needs to update the acceptable use policy again, because it also says network management techniques may include "temporarily delaying peer-to-peer sessions (or sessions using other applications or protocols)."

But — even under the new policy — Comcast says it will impose caps on the users eating up an excessive amount of bandwidth. The subtle difference is that Comcast will be throttling back individual users, rather than individual applications.

This is, to say the least, a mixed message, as I’ve written about before (see "Porsches and Speed Limits").

After all, wouldn’t a customer with an alleged 50-Mbps downstream Internet connection be expected to exhibit bandwidth consumption that is, to use the Comcast TOS terminology, "not characteristic of a typical residential user"? 

To refine my earlier metaphor, this is like leasing someone a Lamborghini that can crack 200 MPH. But disabling the car from driving more than, say, 30 miles a day.

Forget the regulatory implications of all this. (Kevin Martin is probably leaving soon anyway.) There’s a real danger of further disappointing customers on this front.

Comcast has already done that with its existing cable modem service: Broadband subscribers in California and Washington, D.C., have sued the MSO, alleging it falsely advertised "crazy-fast" speeds and "unfettered access" to the Internet that it did not deliver.

What will happen when that "extreme" 50-Meg service isn’t quite as extremely Comcastic as a new sub expects? 

March