More than a year after instituting an "excessive usage" cap for all of its broadband customers, Comcast is launching a usage-metering pilot for subscribers in Portland, Ore., that will let them track how much Internet bandwidth they consume.
Beginning Tuesday and continuing over the next couple of weeks, all of Comcast's high-speed Internet customers in Portland will receive e-mails informing them that the meter is available via their account details on the Customer Central Web portal.
"Our hope is that people will see how little data they actually consume, and have some comfort that see that they're not even close to the limit," Comcast director of corporate communications Charlie Douglas said. "If you have to ask if you're an excessive user, you probably aren't one."
Comcast's 250-Gigabyte-per-month usage limit went into effect Oct. 1, 2008. Douglas said the operator had to build the usage-meter from scratch and verify its accuracy before rolling it out to customers.
The usage-meter feature will first show data usage being consumed in the current month and over time will show the most recent three months of usage (including the current month). The meter updates roughly every 3 hours and is "designed to display usage conservatively and in favor of customers" by rounding down usage to the nearest gigabyte, Douglas said.
Douglas reiterated that fewer than 1% of Comcast customers even approach the 250-GB per month excessive-usage threshold. The median broadband subscriber consumes 2 GB to 4 GB of data per month.
The operator had previously directed customers to third-party metering tools, such as the McAfee Security Suite. However, those meters measure usage for only a specific laptop or PC; the new Comcast feature measures the usage for all Internet devices in the home.
"We do realize that people who were technically savvy wanted a way to track usage," he said.
Douglas said Comcast currently has no plans to implement usage-based billing but noted that "it's something that every ISP is evaluating." Time Warner Cable, most notably, had planned to expand its test of consumption-based pricing to four markets this year, but postponed the trials after the idea was attacked by customers, elected officials and public-interest groups.
The internally developed data meter tracks usage at a subscriber's cable modem and at the cable modem termination system (CMTS) at the headend. In Portland, Comcast uses Cisco Systems' uBR 10K CMTS platform.
Comcast has no specific timeline for expanding the data-usage meter to additional markets. That decision will be based on the results of the pilot in Oregon, Douglas said.
In conjunction with the Portland trial, Comcast has contracted with NetForecast, a small network engineering consulting company, to perform an independent analysis to verify the accuracy of the meter. The firm's report, which found the meter is accurate to within plus or minus 0.5% over a month, is available here. Douglas said Comcast will continue to work with the firm on an ongoing basis to audit the usage-meter results.
The cable operator is providing more information on the usage-meter trial at http://networkmanagement.comcast.net.
Free Press, which has launched a campaign to block the Comcast/NBCU merger if it happens, said Comcast should be giving consumers the tools to keep track of their usage, but still raised red flags about what it said could be a "slippery slope."
"A tool to monitor Internet usage could be used to lay the groundwork for metered pricing -- which can massively overcharge consumers and deter innovation online," said Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott in a statement e-mailed to Multichannel News Tuesday. "With the launch of TV Everywhere looming and a Comcast-NBC merger in the works we should be especially wary of a company setting the stage to gauge consumers' Internet usage. Will the online video content owned by others set the meter running while Comcast's programming doesn't?"
Comcast, which anticipates launching its On Demand Online service for cable and broadband subscribers nationwide within the next two weeks, has previously said all video consumed through Fancast.com and other Comcast properties will count toward the 250-GB monthly cap.
John Eggerton contributed to this article.