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Comcast to cap customers’ broadband usage

Comcast sued the FCC last week over a ruling limiting its broadband management practices, while at the same time saying that it will comply with the terms of that decision. The nation’s largest cable operator also announced it will place a cap on Internet use beginning on Oct. 1.

“We filed this appeal in order to protect our legal rights,” Comcast wrote to the U.S. Court of Appeals, “and to challenge the basis on which the commission found that Comcast violated federal policy in the absence of pre-existing legally enforceable standards or rules.”

The FCC in August found that Comcast’s network management practices were arbitrary and capricious, and gave the operator 30 days to disclose the details of its practices. It was given to year’s end to create an acceptable plan for the FCC.

The FCC’s order was in response to complaints by Free Press that Comcast was slowing its customers’ use of BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer application. The commission said that Comcast had a competitive reason to slow BitTorrent uploads since it represented “a competitive threat” to cable.

Comcast argued the FCC does not have the authority to interfere in its business. The FCC said otherwise, citing a Supreme Court decision that “specifically recognized the commission’s ancillary authority to impose regulations as necessary to protect broadband Internet access.”

In the meantime, Comcast said it will cap the Internet usage of all customers starting Oct. 1. The company will set a monthly data usage threshold of 250GB per account for all residential high-speed Internet customers, or the equivalent of 50 million e-mails or 124 SD movies.

“If a customer exceeds more than 250GB and is one of the heaviest data users who consume the most data on our high-speed Internet service, he or she may receive a call from Comcast’s Customer Security Assurance (CSA) group to notify them of excessive use,” said an updated Frequently Asked Questions on Excessive Use.

Comcast said customers who top 250 GB per month twice in a six-month timeframe could have service terminated for a year. The cable provider said up to 99 percent of its 14 million Internet subscribers would not be affected by the new threshold, which it said would help ensure the quality of Internet delivery is not degraded by a minority of heavy users.

Free Press said while Comcast’s new 250 GB limit was “relatively high,” it could eventually ensnare customers as technology progresses. The limit equals about four hours of HDTV a day. As the technology company Cisco stated in a report last winter, “today’s ‘bandwidth hog’ is tomorrow’s average user.”

“If the United States had genuine broadband competition, Internet providers would not be able to profit from artificial scarcity — they would invest in their networks to keep pace with consumer demand,” said S. Derek Turner of Free Press. “Unfortunately, Americans will continue to face the consequences of this lack of competition until policymakers get serious about policies that deliver the world-class networks consumers deserve.”

Some commentators were quick to characterize Comcast’s decision as having a chilling effect. Om Malik, the founder of the technology Web site GigaOm, called the cap “the end of the Internet as we know it.”, a Web site about consumer broadband information, said it indicated “a significant shift in the U.S. broadband market that won’t be reversible.”