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The Invisible Threshold
Making your service limits clear
by Karl Bode 01:07PM Monday Sep 15 2003
One Comcast user, already warned about exceeding unmentioned bandwidth limitations, finds his service suspended for crossing an invisible line. -

In the broadband universe, the term "unlimited" usually means the exact opposite, as heavy Comcast downloaders are the latest to discover. This letter has apparently been making the rounds among some of Comcast's more bandwidth hungry customers. It warns them that they're violating the company's acceptable use policy, but fails to give them a hard number as to how much bandwidth usage is too much, or how they can become compliant.

Like with so many other providers and newer tech-oriented businesses, Comcast marketing material has used the mysteriously flexible term "unlimited" as a selling point. The ensuing discussion raises the recurring concern that providers need to clearly document these limits if they expect customers to adhere to them.

The question isn't whether or not ISP's have the right to enforce their terms of service; nor is it a question of instituting caps and other bandwidth control methods to ensure network performance. The problems arise when you advertise for (or insinuate) an all-you-can-eat buffet with no restrictions, then inform the gluttonous masses who arrive that they'll be booted from the table if they consume more than two plates worth of food.

One user who received the abuse warning this week found his account terminated after receiving a warning letter last month. The letter itself fails to quantify the exact nature of the abuse, and doesn't list the exact amount of data consumed, or the inherent data consumption limits Comcast expects such users to adhere to. Yes, the amount of data consumed was probably obscene; the limits should still be clearly listed.

The Comcast acceptable use policy isn't particularly helpful, and only contains vague guidelines for users curious about how much data they can consume:

"You must ensure that your activity (including, but not limited to, use made by you or others of any Personal Web Features) does not improperly restrict, inhibit, or degrade any other user's use of the Service, nor represent (in the sole judgment of Comcast) an unusually large burden on the network. In addition, you must ensure that your activities do not improperly restrict, inhibit, disrupt, degrade or impede Comcast's ability to deliver the Service and monitor the Service, backbone, network nodes, and/or other network Services."

How many of these instances does it take before companies take the fairly simple step of clearly listing the guidelines of their service? On-line music service E-Music faced the exact same problem when they promised users "unlimited downloads", only to begin suspending the accounts of users who had crossed their invisible threshold.

UK provider NTL faced a public relations nightmare when they suddenly decided to implement gig-a-day limits without bothering to tell anyone. When asked by a perturbed customer why they didn't mention it, one of the company's executives informed the world that they didn't think their customers would be "'tech' enough to understand".

Cox Communications came under fire last fall for sending warning letters to "bandwidth hogs" who had been exceeding their daily limits. Again, most customers had no idea any such limits existed, and other than some vague references on their website and hints at limits in their service agreements, many customers felt the company was too muddy in their policies. Cox apparently heeded the criticism and soon after started being crystal clear in information circulated to subscribers; limits were set at "30GB of downloads per month, with a maximum of 2GB per day. Uploads are limited to 7.5GB per month, with a maximum of 1GB per day."

It's not rocket science; if you want customers to adhere to guidelines, it helps to clearly mention what those guidelines are.

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