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Who Confirms The Accuracy Of ISP Usage Meters?
You do! Good luck!
by Karl Bode 06:50PM Thursday Jan 07 2010
In Canada, where ISPs have successfully implemented low caps and high per-gigabyte overages, we've noted how companies like Cogeco have had a difficult time providing accurate consumption tools to customers. Of course these screw ups result in additional support costs for carriers, and and can confuse customers. In New Zealand, where caps and overages are common, the New Zealand Herald (via Stop The Cap) reports how broadband Telecom New Zealand over-billed and throttled its customers -- thanks to a routine network upgrade:
Telecom has reimbursed 150,000 customers whose broadband speed was slashed, as network upgrades for the much-vaunted new TiVo digital recorder service caused widespread technical problems. . . said the error was caused when Telecom's engineering partner, Juniper, was upgrading the network in preparation for TiVo's November 6 launch in New Zealand.
Whoops. It's important to note that in contrast to what the Herald story suggests, the ISP in question didn't just spontaneously discover their error and issue refunds out of altruism. Those 150,000 customers would not be seeing refunds if users of a local New Zealand user forum named Geekzone hadn't pieced together what was happening. If you follow threads there, you'll note that for many Telecom New Zealand customers, the meter provided them frequently doesn't work, or shows incorrect usage. Users there had to make a concerted effort to get the ISP to investigate and to issue refunds.

Here in the States of course, our largest ISPs are very eager to impose this per-byte overage model, simply because it generates more revenue. Unfortunately for ISPs, they've run into strong opposition from consumers, many of whom prefer the simplicity and lower price of flat-rate service. One of the many disingenuous ISP arguments (aside from "it's fair to grandmothers" and "it will prevent the Internet from collapsing") in support of this shift is that your electricity is also metered, so it just "makes sense."

Of course as we've repeatedly noted, what ISPs want is not a fair, purely-usage based system, because they'd make no money if the nation's light users (80%+ of their customers) suddenly started paying $10 a month instead of $40. What they want is to have their cake and eat it too -- charging users per-gigabyte overages on top of a flat monthly rate that in most cases already more than pays for the service and support being delivered.

One problem with the electricity metaphor? If carriers want to compare themselves to your local electrical utility, they'd better be ready to have their meters heavily regulated to guarantee accuracy -- just like your electricity meter. You can be sure they won't like that. In many markets the world over, ISPs fight against people independently verifying the accuracy of their meters. If U.S. ISPs want to head down this path, consumers shouldn't have to wrangle with their ISPs over meter accuracy.

You'll recall that Comcast is among several ISPs (including Time Warner Cable and AT&T) that have been considering per gigabyte overages. Comcast is clearly aware of the necessity for an accurate usage meter -- given it took them more than a year to deliver one after imposing a 250 GB cap in 2008. Comcast recently unveiled their new meter in Portland, using a firm of their choice to determine it's accuracy. The firm they hired, of course, proclaimed proudly that the meter was accurate to within 0.5% each month.

Who'll confirm this? Nobody. Are there laws protecting consumers from abuse? Nope. Will there be? Probably not. But with an FCC that at least claims that "total transparency" is one of their top broadband issues as they craft America's very first national broadband policy, expect this to be a heated topic in 2010.

80 comments .. click to read

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Karl Bode
News Guy

2 recommendations

reply to FFH5

Re: When was last time your electric meter chkd by gov't?

You accept what the electric co. says you are being billed is accurate - UNLESS YOU COMPLAIN.
And the consumer who complains is supported by what? Government regulation of the meters to guarantee equity. Your argument that you haven't had a government goon in a cheap suit squat over your Virginia meter is disingenuous and you know it...


Sandy, UT

3 recommendations

reply to FFH5
The tests are standardized tests that comply with ASTM or UL standards. It's easy for regulatory agencies (federal or state) to verify compliance with these testing procedures as they are heavily documented.
said by FFH5:

And does anyone seriously think some state regulator is going to dispute the companies claims of accuracy when provided with the testing info done by an independent 3rd party?
The point which as typical you ignored was that there is no regulatory framework. So your little straw man is easy to argue, of course no regulator would care as there isn't a regulator.

If someone is going to bill you per amount and they are using meters to do so there should be regulation in place to make sure that measurement is fair and accurate. Otherwise consumers have no guarantee of accuracy. Statements made by Comcast that the system is accurate are meaningless because there hasn't been any independent verification that anything they have said is accurate. In fact their system could be completely arbitrary without connection to reality and no one would know. The testing they had done was not independent, it was a paid promotion by an consultant without certification or standard testing, which is worthless in my eyes.

When I pump gas I know the meter on my gas pump is checked at least once a year for accuracy. I know my electrical meter is rated and certified by UL laboratories to be accurate within reasonable tolerances. I know my gas meter has similar testing and certification before it was ever placed into service. And above all, I know that if I suspect these meters to be inaccurate I don't have to launch a lawsuit, I can challenge the accuracy within the regulatory framework and the company will be forced to prove the accuracy to the regulatory authorities and I can be certain an independent person without financial incentive has verified the accuracy.

That's the difference. Until there is regulation in place to make sure it's accurate it's not going to be trustworthy. This is hard to measure, and it's even harder for shared pipes like cable. I suspect that it won't be long after these types of systems are implemented before class action lawsuits launch and lawyers make a lot of money proving the systems aren't accurate because their is no independent certification. Regulation is a good thing for everyone involved. It helps the consumers by providing outlets for complaint and it protects the business. Only a fool would argue regulation is bad.