A tip of the data cap to Comcast

The gloves are about to come off in the broadband internet and streaming TV service wars. I can see proof of this just by logging into my account on Comcast’s web site and viewing my monthly data usage for the past few months.

Comcast has traditionally had bandwidth caps for their internet broadband service, limiting usage to 250GB/mo per household. However, these limits haven’t been enforced for at least two or three years, and probably much longer. When we first started using Comcast, they were enforced, but we never came near 250GB, usually winding up in the high 100’s. Now, though, it’s a different story.

Comcast data usage

Unfortunately, I stopped paying attention for a very long time, and there’s no way to go back further in time to see if something dramatically changed or if we just gradually started drinking more from the firehose. My guess is the latter; I stream more video than ever, although it still seems like we stream less video than a lot of families I know. I can’t quantify that, though. My daughter and I probably stream the most video, and my wife watches cable TV almost exclusively. As my daughter has gotten older, undoubtedly the amount of data use she’s contributing to the total has increased quite a bit.

The good news is that we’re in an area where Comcast’s broadband service is fast and reliable. We regularly get 125 – 150Mbps downstream and 12Mbps upstream. It’s fast. And it almost never hiccups. In theory, this lends itself well to cutting the cable TV cord and either just using the streaming video services we currently use for watching shows and movies, or adding a another option like Sling, Comcast’s upcoming $15 per month streaming TV product, or the mythical, always-almost-here Apple streaming TV service. The only problem is there’s the impending return of those Comcast 250GB bandwidth caps to worry about, and all evidence is that return swiftly they shall.

As Comcast starts rolling out their own streaming TV service, they’re playing a shell game with bandwidth caps. By imposing 300GB per month data caps in some of the areas where their new TV service is now available, I think they’ve tipped their hand pretty clearly as to how they plan to deal with competing streaming services, and the legality of their move depends on how much you believe their claims that their TV service doesn’t use the internet. Personally, I can’t see how they can make the claim that it doesn’t use the internet with a straight face, but they are, in fact, making that claim. It remains to be seen what Tom Wheeler and his wacky crew at the FCC think about that.

The whole problem with Comcast is simply that people are tired of paying $180-$200 per month for TV. It’s that simple. Ignoring pricing, they have a good, competitive product. Their internet is fast, and it works well. I’ve never had issues with it, and I’ve used it since 2000, except for a two or three year period when Verizon Fios was available here.1 The TV service is fine. The phone service… well, who cares about the phone service, besides Comcast? And therein lies part of the problem.

Comcast doesn’t just play shell games with data caps. They also play shell games with product pricing so they can keep your monthly bill as close to $200 per month as possible. They bundle their products and only offer reasonable discounts if you subscribe to their Triple Play of internet, TV, and phone service. I honestly can’t think of a reason they push their phone service on customers so heavily, because it’s 2015 and most people quit calling houses a long time ago. They call other people. And people, not houses, receive phone calls. Yes, there are still people with home phones, but I couldn’t name one right now if my life depended on it. But in Comcast’s world, EVERYONE needs a home phone, and EVERYONE needs it shoved down their throats by making subscribing to anything from Comcast unreasonably expensive individually unless bundled as part of a Triple Play.

Every 18 to 24 months, I have the incredible pleasure of calling or visiting Comcast’s office and arguing with people for hours about our monthly bill and what we get from them in return for our payment. They offer me a lower price for 6 months if I lock myself in for two years. I say no. They offer me a lower bill for 18 months if I accept their stupid phone service, and last time I caved and said yes. It will be the last time I say yes. I’m done caving to Comcast and their bundled services.

I can’t actually even USE their phone service right now if I wanted to, because I don’t have their cable modem that supports IP telephony connected. I’m using my own. I have a Comcast phone number, but I’ve never once used it. I never intend to. I hate home phones almost as much as I hate Comcast’s pricing and the painful way they keep inching the bill higher and higher until they force you to fight with them again, so they can wear you down and make you accept a compromise just to stop the pain.

If Comcast is able to both offer their own streaming TV service and set a 300GB bandwidth limit on their internet product, I have no doubt that it will cripple the chances for other streaming TV services. All I have to do is look at my own data usage according to Comcast (and if they hold the meter, there’s very little arguing about its accuracy that I can do)2 to see that I could probably never stay under 300GB per month with any streaming TV service that counts against my data usage. And they all will, except Comcast’s.

In retrospect, Comcast was unbelievably clever to suspend enforcement of their data caps for so long. It gave them the opportunity to play nice guy while finding out just exactly how much bandwidth people use when they think no one is watching, and how much Netflix and other video sources add to the number. Now they know. And I can assure you they didn’t just pull that 300GB number out of their hat because they think it’s a generous amount that will let everyone bail from their cable TV subscriptions and start streaming competitor’s TV offerings.

300GB is the magic number for a monthly data cap that will allow Comcast to keep streamers in-house or to charge enough extra for their broadband that the average monthly bill stays sufficiently high enough to keep Comcast happy.

Comcast could have a huge following of loyal, happy customers if they’d just quit trying to squeeze everyone dry. Instead, everyone who ever has to deal with Comcast at negotiation time or simply pay their bill every month wants to kill both themselves and everyone at Comcast. Now that people are throwing up their hands and deciding it’s stupid to keep paying so much for TV every month, Comcast is positioning itself to crush any chances of them turning to competing streaming TV services by holding very carefully calculated data caps over everyone’s heads.

  1. And then Verizon sold it to Frontier, and it became amateur hour at its worst. 
  2. It’s not inconceivable to think that Comcast could pad the numbers in their favor; I’m honestly having trouble thinking of how our data consumption has increased by almost 100GB per month, and I know Verizon was padding cellular data use numbers, because simply switching from AT&T to Verizon resulted in almost a 10GB/mo increase in cellular data usage. Forgive me for not quite believing that one.