Thursday, April 17, 2008

Data in the neighborhood

I’m trying to read, to see if distractions will help. And up pops yet another story about Comcast disconnecting an Internet customer who is using too much bandwidth. I would be sad if Comcast did that to me, since there is currently no other broadband option to our house. While the AP may lament the Internet being clogged with “bandwidth-sucking data,” I think the Internet would be somewhat less interesting without data.

Some salient features of Comcast’s actions in these sorts of stories as they play out: Comcast’s approach to informing you that you’re using too much bandwidth is to disconnect your Internet and wait for you to call in to complain that it’s not working. Comcast won’t tell you how much bandwidth you’re using, nor what their limits are (and their limits are apparently relative rather than absolute). Most customers have no way to tell how much bandwidth they’re using in absolute or relative terms, and Comcast offers no access to that information. And Comcast offers no options: you cannot pay more for more bandwidth, and you cannot ask for your bandwidth to be capped on an hourly or daily basis. After your first opaque and confusing warning that customer service reps often deny even happened, your next explanation from Comcast is them telling you that they have turned off your account for 12 months, and there is no way to have it turned back on before then.

There are interesting game theory problems embedded here. How do you ensure that you are not one of the highest bandwidth users in your neighborhood without any information about either your usage or your neighbors’ usage? If your Internet connection is slow, is it worth complaining to Comcast when they might then decide that it’s easier to disconnect the highest users (which might include you) rather than add nodes? How does the tension resolve between Comcast wanting to use FUD to convince customers to aggressively limit their own usage and Comcast wanting customers to believe that broadband Internet is worth $54.95 per month? And should you try to convince your neighbors to use more bandwidth, which will slow down your connection, or less bandwidth, which will make it more likely that you are the highest bandwidth user in your neighborhood?

Comcast’s world is more The Prisoner than the prisoner’s dilemma, replete with surveillance, monitoring, and traffic shaping. But really, would it hurt to offer a metered service, or at least a meter and some fixed limits? You and I understand that recursively banning the “worst” 1% of your customers does not have a viable stopping point. But I can just imagine the frustrated Comcast executive looking at the monthly reports, saying “But we banned the worst 1% last month! And now there’s another worst 1%!”

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