September 8, 2007 in Business

Comcast cuts Internet service to bandwidth hogs

Washington Post The Spokesman-Review

The rapid growth of online videos, music and games has created a new Internet sin: using it too much.

Comcast has punished some transgressors by cutting off their Internet service, arguing that excessive downloaders hog Internet capacity and slow down the network for other customers. The company declines to reveal its download limits.

“You have no way of knowing how much is too much,” said Sandra Spalletta of Rockville, Md., whose Internet service was suspended in March after Comcast sent her a letter warning that she and her teen-age son were using too much bandwidth. They cut back on downloads but were still disconnected. She said the company would not tell her how to monitor their bandwidth use in order to comply with the limits.

“You want to think you can rely on your home Internet service and not wake up one morning to find it turned off,” said Spalletta, who filed a complaint with the Montgomery County Office of Cable and Communication Services. “I thought it was unlimited service.”

As Internet service providers try to keep up with the demand for increasingly sophisticated online entertainment such as high-definition movies, streaming TV shows and interactive games, such caps could become more common, some analysts said.

It’s unclear how many customers have lost Internet service because of overuse. So far, only Comcast customers have reported being affected. Comcast said only a small fraction of its customers use enough bandwidth to warrant pulling the plug on their service.

Cable companies are facing tough competition from telephone giants like AT&T and Verizon, which are installing new cables capable of carrying more Internet traffic.

The cable companies collectively spent about $90 billion in the past decade to improve their networks. And on cable networks, several hundred subscribers often share an Internet connection, so one high-traffic user could slow the rest of a neighborhood’s connections. Phone lines are run directly to each home, so a single bandwidth hog will not slow other connections.

As Internet users make more demands of the network, cable companies in particular could soon end up with a critically short supply of bandwidth, according to a report released this month by ABI Research, a New York market-research firm.

This could lead to a bigger crackdown on heavy bandwidth users, said the report’s author, Stan Schatt.

“These new applications require huge amounts of bandwidth,” he said. Cable “used to have the upper hand because they basically enjoyed monopolies, but there are more competitive pressures now.”

To trigger a disconnection warning, customers would be downloading the equivalent of 1,000 songs or four full-length movies every day. Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas declined to reveal specific bandwidth limits.

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