Cablers Turn on the Bandwidth Meters


Cable companies are hyping their blistering-fast DOCSIS 3.0 services, which leave DSL gasping in the dust.

But the operators don’t want broadband subscribers to use those big, fat pipes too much.

Time Warner Cable plans to expand its “consumption-based billing” to other markets, COO Landel Hobbs said on the company’s Q4 earnings call today, in which the MSO charges $1 for every gigabyte a subscriber uses above a preset threshold.

Comcast last fall initiated a 250-Gbyte monthly maximum for all broadband subscribers. Cox limits monthly consumption for its 10-20 Mbps tier to 60 Gbytes downstream and for its 5-9 Mbps tier to 40 Gbytes downstream. (See

Now Charter is joining the ranks of MSOs imposing usage caps: The operator next week will set a ceiling of 100 Gbytes on subs with connection speeds of 15 Mbps or less, and 250 Gbytes for tiers between 15 and 25 Mbps. (Note that AT&T is experimenting with usage-based billing too.)

Meanwhile, the cable industry is gearing up to widen the availability of services that provide (allegedly) 50-Mbps download speeds, or faster.

TWC wants to deploy DOCSIS 3.0 in New York City (to fight Verizon’s FiOS) and other markets in 2009, according to Cable Digital News. Comcast says it’s offering “wideband” 50-Mbps down service to 10 million premises, and Charter, which is near bankruptcy, last week launched a 60-Mbps downstream DOCSIS 3.0 service that it touted as the fastest broadband service in the U.S.

Offering faster speeds while setting usage caps?

On the face of it, that’s a mixed message. It’s like leasing someone a Porsche — and then telling them to keep it parked in the driveway most of the time.

To its credit, Charter at least is exempting the $140-per-month Ultra60 tier from any bandwidth-usage limitations. And on the Comcast front, yes, 250 Gbytes is a lot of data. Comcast’s figures put it at the equivalent of 50 million e-mails or 62,500 MP3s.

The MSOs need a way to handle the corner-case users who chew up unduly massive amounts of network capacity. Cox CTO Chris Bowick related a story at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo last year about one subscriber who sucked down 1.5 Terabytes of data in one month — equal to 188 DVD movies.

On the other hand, if you download two or more feature-length HD movie per day, you’d easily blow through the Comcast cap.

Do most people download two HD movies every day? Probably not. But I imagine the average consumer wouldn’t deem that excessive. Cable companies may soon need to find another way of tackling the “bandwidth pig” problem — either by upping their caps or adding network capacity — to get over potential perception problems.