Comcast Tries New Ways To Control Bandwidth Pigs


This week Comcast will begin testing “protocol-agnostic” network management systems in two markets, hoping to find the best way of checking unusually heavy Internet users without running afoul of regulators.

The operator’s trials will begin June 5 in Chambersburg, Pa., and Warrenton, Va., and run for 30 days, followed by a similar test in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“These tests are an important step toward our commitment to implement a protocol-agnostic network management approach by the end of this year and to ensure the best possible customer experience online,” Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said in a statement.

Comcast will test three different vendors’ bandwidth-management platforms, though Douglas declined to name the suppliers. It has been widely reported that Comcast has used Sandvine’s system to throttle back BitTorrent-based peer-to-peer traffic.

Time Warner Cable, meanwhile, on Thursday plans to kick off a different approach to curbing excessive broadband usage: It will charge users a $1 per Gigabyte fee for bandwidth they use beyond a preset threshold.

Douglas said Comcast has considered setting a usage threshold of 250 Gbytes per month and has examined overage-pricing models. However, he added, the operator has no current plans to implement those. Under its existing policy, Comcast issues warnings to excessive users and occasionally has cut off repeat offenders.

In March, Comcast announced it would abandon its current practice of specifically curtailing BitTorrent application traffic, and instead would work with BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer companies to find an alternative way of managing heavy users.

That came after a test by the Associated Press last fall found Comcast delayed peer-to-peer transmissions, which led so-called net neutrality activists to accuse the cable giant of violating Federal Communications Commission guidelines for acceptable network management.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin has criticized Comcast for using “blunt means” of controlling peer-to-peer traffic, and the agency is in midst of investigating the operator’s Internet management practices.

The new network management systems Comcast is testing identify subscribers who are consuming more than their fair share of available Internet resources over a certain period of time. The systems then throttle back those customers’ Internet connections until their usage falls below established bandwidth thresholds or until network congestion ends.

Douglas said Comcast’s objective with the trials is to get a better idea of the optimal settings for throttling back heavy users, as well as which vendor’s platform best meets its needs.

Details of Comcast’s testing were first reported Tuesday by

Comcast said it has notified customers in the test markets via e-mail, and posted a “frequently asked questions” document about the trials on its Web site.

The subscriber e-mails, which Comcast provided to Multichannel News, carried the subject line, “Important Note from Comcast: System Test in Your Area.” According to Comcast, only extremely heavy Internet users will notice any differences.

“At the busiest times of the day on our network (which could occur at any time), those very few disproportionately heavy users, who are doing things like conducting numerous or continuous large file transfers, may experience slightly longer response times for some online activities, until the period of network congestion ends,” the e-mails said.

According to Comcast, far less than 1% of its subscribers use “excessive” amounts of bandwidth.

While it does not define data thresholds, Comcast says a subscriber who downloaded more than 50,000 songs per month or sent out 40 million e-mail messages would trigger a warning to cut back on usage.

“Typical residential Internet users don't come close to this level of usage,” Comcast says in a FAQ about excessive use on its site. “In fact, an excessive user consumes more data in one month than a typical residential customer would use over a period of many years.”