Comcast, the largest U.S. cable operator, said on Thursday it would cap customers’ Internet usage starting Oct. 1, to ensure the best service for the vast majority of its subscribers.
The company said it was setting a monthly data usage threshold of 250 gigabytes (GB) per account for all residential high-speed Internet customers, or the equivalent of 50 million e-mails or 124 standard-definition 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 group to notify them of excessive use,” according to the company’s updated Frequently Asked Questions on Excessive Use.
Customers who top 250GB in a month twice in a six-month timeframe could have service terminated for a year.
Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) 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.
As Web usage has rocketed, driven by the popularity of watching online video, photo-sharing and music downloading services, cable and phone companies have been considering various techniques to limit or manage heavy usage. U.S. Internet subscribers are typically not aware of any limit on their Internet usage once they sign up to pay a flat monthly fee to their service provider.
But Comcast has come under fire from a variety of sources for its network management techniques.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission investigated complaints by consumer groups that it was blocking peer-to-peer applications like BitTorrent, and earlier this month ordered Comcast to modify its network management.
In part, the FCC blasted Comcast engaging in bandwidth capping without giving its customers adequate notice.
Comcast has said that by the end of the year it will change its network management practices to ensure all Web traffic is treated essentially the same — the principle of “Net neutrality,” which has long been a hot-button issue for a number of consumer advocates and is increasingly under scrutiny by elected officials. It also said it has been exploring other ways to prevent degradation of its Internet service delivery.
One consumer group said while Comcast’s new 250GB limit was “relatively high,” it could eventually ensnare customers as technology progresses.
“If Comcast has oversold their network to the point of creating congestion problems, then well-disclosed caps for Internet use are a better short-term solution than Comcast’s current practice of illegally blocking Internet traffic,” said S Derek Turner of Free Press, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group that filed a complaint about Comcast’s network management practices earlier this year.
The Philadelphia-based company is not alone in trying to come up with ways to limit heavy Internet usage.
Time Warner Cable, the second-largest U.S. cable operator, said in January it would run a trial of billing Internet subscribers based on usage rather than a flat fee.
Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said Comcast was also considering so-called consumption-based billing, but no decisions had been made.