Bandwidth Cap-tivity


Is next-generation cable broadband getting all dressed up with nowhere to go?

The paradox of Comcast’s 250-Gigabyte monthly bandwidth cap is that it comes as the MSO is rolling out 50-Megabit-per-second DOCSIS 3.0 service to compete with FiOS Internet (see Porsches and Speed Limits).

Look no further than Comcast CEO Brian Roberts’ on-stage demo at CES in January: He used a "wideband" modem to download a 4.7-Gbyte HD file of Batman Begins in less than four minutes. 

So, theoretically, if you were inclined to try to download 50 HD movies of comparable size all at once, you could hit that 250-Gbyte cap in less than four hours. 

Yeah, that’s pedal-to-the-metal. But it underscores the marketing finesse that will be required to sell wideband in light of the new usage limitations.

Comcast insists that far less than 1% of its users even comes close to bumping into the ceiling. Rather than providing a simple usage meter for subscribers, the MSO’s stated policy is to contact the bandwidth pigs and ask them to ease off the gas pedal. Essentially, it’s telling customers: If you’re hogging the pipe, you probably already know it.

But — that’s with today’s DOCSIS 2.0 modem service at around 10 Mbps.

As Sanford Bernstein analyst Jeffrey Lindsay pointed out in a research note yesterday, 250 Gigabytes sounds generous at first blush… before you factor in what’s possible with next-generation broadband. He writes:

With a dialup modem on 24×7, it would have taken over a year to reach this cap. Even with current DSL speeds, it would be almost impossible to reach Comcast’s cap in a month. But with cable it’s a different story. With today’s cable modems, it is theoretically possible to max out this same usage cap in about 2-10 days of continuous video streaming and downloading files. With the next generation of DOCSIS 3.0 modems (50 Mbs to 100 Mbs) and FTTH Telco systems such as Verizon’s FIOS, a 250 GB cap could be reached in under a day of constant usage. To be fair, applications that would use full bandwidth continuously for hours do not exist yet – say Hi Def video conferencing at home. But technologically, at least they are already here.

It seems inevitable that a usage-based pricing will emerge, in some form. The oversubscription design of broadband access networks is being punctured by extremely heavy users — corner cases today, perhaps, but increasingly mainstream soon enough.

Imagine if all your TV were delivered via the Internet. High-quality 1080i HD video at (conservatively) an average of 5 Mbps would chew up plenty of bandwidth: roughly 286 Gigabytes in a 30-day period, given that Americans watch an average of 127 hours and 15 minutes of TV per month, according to Nielsen. Cap busted!