Who will pick up paying customer that Comcast dropped because of high data usage?

Comcast cut off broadband access to Andre Vrignaud for excessive usage. Will anybody else step up and take Vrignaud’s lifetime of monthly fees for internet service at the top of a hill in Seattle?

Comcast stirred a pot of trouble when it decided to cut off Vrignaud, who twice exceeded his monthly data cap of 250 gigabytes on his cable modem. Vrignaud’s story hit news outlets across the nation and raised the question: What do broadband providers have to put up with when it comes to their customers, particularly as cloud computing starts to put the strain on networks? And what right do consumers have to internet access?

Vrignaud, a former game-focused platform strategist and evangelist for Microsoft and Intel, is a frequent blogger on his own personal Ozymandias site. He also recently worked at Amazon and is now an independent game industry consultant. He’s raising a lot of questions about it now. Comcast offered to restore service this week, but Vrignaud said it was too late.

He let the world know about how Comcast cut him off and the arbitrary nature of it. Dozens of publications wrote about it. Vrignaud is considering his options, which include Comcast’s rival, Qwest/CenturyLink, which could provide bandwidth via telephone lines. Comcast is getting a publicity black-eye and taking a drubbing from consumers for its stance on data caps at a time when bandwidth should be getting less expensive, not more.

We caught up with Vrignaud in Seattle at the Casual Connect game conference, and he told us the latest about his ordeal.

It all started on July 11, when Vrignaud came home and discovered he had no internet and that he would be cut off for a year. Vrignaud had a $60 a month Comcast cable modem that could deliver 15 megabits a second to his home and carry data out of his home at 3 megabits per second. A month earlier, Vrignaud said he had a “polite but irritated” conversation with Comcast’s Customer Security Department about how much data he was using. He told them he had no idea how he used so much and wondered if his roommates may have hit the limit because they watched Netflix HD streaming movies and listened to Pandora’s internet-streamed music radio. He also had an open access point that he reserved for guests. Vrignaud wanted to know his usage details, but Comcast wouldn’t share that.

“I made very clear to the gentleman I spoke with that I thought Comcast’s data cap policy was arbitrary, unfair, and extremely irritating,” Vrignaud later wrote on his blog. “And that if I had any decent competitive options in the neighborhood I’d dump Comcast in a heartbeat. Since I don’t, I listened to him read his canned warning that if I exceeded their cap again I’d be cut off again.”

Comcast reactivated the service and Vrignaud asked roommates to keep an eye on the bandwidth use and deactivated the visitor access point. Then he forgot about it, got cut off again, and found that he had now been banned for a full year “due to exceeding Comcast’s acceptable use policy limits.”

Charlie Douglas, a spokesman for Comcast, said, “More than 99 percent of our customers don’t even come close to using 250 gigabytes of data in a month. Nationwide, our customers’ median data usage is four to six gigabytes a month. 250 gigabytes is an extraordinary amount of data and equivalent to downloading 62,500 songs or uploading 25,000 hi-res photos.”

Comcast started its bandwidth cap in 2008. In late 2009, Comcast rolled out a bandwidth monitor for those 1 percent of customers who are likely to come close to the data cap. Douglas also said that Comcast transparently explains all of its data usage policies, which customers agree to when they sign up. It also describes what it considers to be excessive use.

When Comcast finally cut Vrignaud off, he made it known to the world via his blog and contacts. He also figured out that he hit his limit because he uploaded many hundreds of audio CDs and high-resolution pictures to cloud storage accounts.

“In the case of music I rip my CDs to WMA Lossless (for ease of streaming to Windows), FLAC (another lossless format, so I can stream losslessly to my Sonos system), and M4A (also known as Apple’s iTunes AAC format, so I can import my music from the media server to iTunes),” Vrignaud said. “I’m a big believer in storing the original, lossless digital content so that I can access it in full fidelity in the future no matter how technology evolves. In some ways that makes me a bit archaic as I still buy (used) CDs from Amazon for all of my music so I can rip it losslessly – I’m not a fan of the compressed music formats you buy and download. But the ramification is that I have terabytes of storage in my basement RAID server – each music track is duplicated three times, I have all of my original RAW photos, plus processed JPEG versions of those RAW photos, as well as a variety of other miscellaneous content – documents, spreadsheets, that sort of thing.”

That explained the problem. Vrignaud bought a three-year subscription to Carbonite so he could back up all of the content to the cloud. He also uploaded his music collection to Amazon’s new Cloud Drive service, so that he could access it while on the road. All of that uploading caused Vrignaud to exceed his bandwidth cap.

“I suspect many people are going to be surprised by this in the coming years, especially as the cloud continues to become more and more a part of our lives,” he said.

Comcast told him there was no appeal to the ruling, at first. He said he would post on it and send a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, Public Knowledge organization, New Media Foundation, the city of Seattle’s Mayor’s Office, and his Seattle City Council representative. Vrignaud had no luck.

Vrignaud was upset because he believes that “the ability to access broadband internet is a right, and should be defined as an essential utility,” provided that you pay for it.

“Just as you’re surprised when you flick a light switch and the light doesn’t come on so are you surprised when the internet goes away in your house,” he wrote. “The internet is used for communication, entertainment, business — an entire panopoly of humor endevours. Just as there are protections to keep water and electricity flowing to your house, so should the internet be protected.”

He added, “Now the broadband companies would strongly disagree with me here. They’re terrified of being turned into dumb pipes that only deliver data. This is why you see such vicious fights over the definition of internet neutrality, and cable companies fighting to be able to restrict services that flow over their pipes, inspect packets, or have the right to charge more for differing levels of service. They try to spin this as protecting the integrity of the network for other customers, and not having to charge more to offer service that some small percentage of their users overuse. However, these same companies are also strangely quiet when you ask them why (as in Comcast’s case) they’re able to keep boosting my broadband speed tier year after year for no additional charge. Or why their quarterly filings show their cost of providing broadband service continues to drop year after year, while rates keep going up. It doesn’t add up.”

Indeed, broadband costs should be falling as more users join the internet and pay for the shared costs. Technology is also getting more and more efficient as better chips and networking equipment can replace older, less-efficient technologies.

Ultimately, more users will find themselves in the same shoes as Vrignaud, who seems like a bandwidth hog today. People will come to depend on cloud services like Dropbox, Simplenote, Google Apps, and Google Docs for work. They will use streaming online services such as Netflix, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, OnLive, Gaikai, Otoy and Pandora for entertainment. The use of these bandwidth-heavy services is expected to go up. During primetime, streaming services such as Netflix reportedly accounts for 30 percent of traffic. Sandvine estimates it could be 55 percent of peak internet traffic by the end of this year.

Vrignaud is trying to gather political and consumer support for his plight, not just from the David vs. Goliath angle, but on whether internet service providers should be allowed to cut people off for overuse. While he is a heavy user, he is an example of the kind of typical user in the future who will tap a lot of cloud services; at some point, we will all use a lot more bandwidth. He noted that Public Knowledge has asked Comcast why it needs to cut off users for “excessive use” when those users are not themselves directly to blame for network congestion. Uploading data from midnight to 6 am will likely not lead to congestion, but it could still trigger a violation of the data cap. Vrignaud suggested that Comcast charge heavy users an extra $10 or $20 a month to pay for their extra costs.

Related to this is the problem that Netflix recently ran into: It had to raise the fees it charges users for its disk-based movie service, though it kept the movie-streaming monthly fee unchanged. At some point, will Netflix have to raise that too as bandwidth providers start charging fees to Netflix? If there are fees attached to the new video services based on data usage, then consumers won’t want to use them as much and those new services won’t disrupt the traditional media the way they were intended to do so. That reduces consumer choice, and that is why Vrignaud asked the FCC to look into the matter of data caps.

Of course, a Netflix HD movie consumes only about 1 gigabyte to 1.5 gigabytes of data per hour. You would have to watch 166 hours to 250 hours of HD movies a month to hit the bandwidth cap. That’s not likely for most users. But it’s more of a problem if they are using lots of other cloud services too, Vrignaud says. In any case, Comcast could probably better address the coming data problem by introducing tiered fees, such as charging extra or slowing data delivery if it exceeds the 250 gigabyte cap.

Comcast has a business version of its data plan, ranging from $65 a month to $395 a month, depending on the speed of data coming into and out of the house. There is no cap for the business users, but the installation fees, hardware leases, and time requirements for that business option aren’t necessarily that attractive. Even if Vrignaud wanted to get this option, he can’t, since it is not available to anyone who had been banned from the Comcast consumer service for a year. At least that is what Comcast told him before the media blitz hit. Vrignaud notes that the business versions appears to be just a re-branding of the consumer service, as it uses “high-end networking equipment.” That phrase actually just means a DOCSIS 3.0 modem from Comcast — equipment that Vrignaud already has.

Meanwhile, Vrignaud is hoping someone else will provide fast internet services to his neighborhood on the top of a hill in the Montlake section of Seattle. Comcast representatives spoke to him again this week, this time offering to restore service. But Vrignaud told them he was pursuing other options.

“They didn’t bring any answers,” Vrignaud said. “They wanted to talk, understand my concerns, get ideas. Supposedly they’re investigating things. Also wanted to offer me broadband back. But not a single answer to any of the hard questions.”

Here are Vrignaud’s questions for Comcast. We haven’t gotten answers from them yet.

Is your bandwidth data cap designed to protect your television distribution business? If not, why do you insist on completely cutting off data instead of using other more consumer-friendly options such as charging for overages or slowing internet use?

What ISP-offered services are excluded from the cap? Specifically, are your voice telephony and video programming services excluded? If so, why doesn’t your data cap apply to data consumed when watching television or making a phone call?

How are your data caps set? What data informed that decision? Why do different ISPs have different data caps when using similar networks and distribution technology?

How are your data caps evaluated on an ongoing basis? What customer input do you seek? What are the conditions under which those caps could be raised and/or eliminated?

Do you practice selective enforcement of data caps? (Many ISP users report being over their supposed limits for months in a row without action.)

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