October 6, 2008

Some Cable Companies Impose Internet Limits

By Williams, Walt

A new error message soon may pop up on computer screens:

"Sorry, you've run out of Internet."

That, at least, is the buzz on some Web forums and blogs over news that cable and Internet provider Comcast soon will limit residential Internet users to 250 gigabytes (GB) of data transfer a month.

And Comcast is not the only cable company toying with limits on Internet usage. Time Warner currently is running a test program in Texas that limits some Internet users to as little as 5GB a month.

The new limits come at a time when the Internet is more interactive than ever, allowing users to download movies and upload their own pictures and multimedia files to popular Web sites. They also come at a time when many states - West Virginia in particular - are striving to catch up with the rest of the world in making sure their residents have high-speed Internet access.

So far the limits only apply to residential use, not business use. Also, only cable companies are imposing the limits. Telecommunication companies such as Verizon, which provide DSL services over phone lines, haven't announced any plans to limit use.

"Verizon currently does not have usage caps, and we have not announced plans to have them," Verizon spokeswoman Sandy Arnette wrote in an e-mail.

Representatives from cable Internet providers point out that the limits they are imposing are pretty generous. For example, 250GB is larger than the storage capacity of many hard drives on laptop computers. The vast majority of Internet users never will come close to going over the threshold.

"It is small number of customers," Charlie Douglas, director of corporate communications for Comcast, said. "We can actually call them on the phone and ask them to moderate their usage."

Douglas and other cable company representatives say the limits are needed because a small number of residential users are eating up a disproportionate share of bandwidth over their networks. Those users have the potential of degrading service for other users by making their networks unstable.

Data transfer is measured in the amount of information users upload or download from the Internet. Every time a person opens a Web page or receives an e-mail, the user downloads a little bit of data. Every time a user e-mails a picture or posts a video on a Web site, he or she uploads data.

Comcast has had an "excessive use" policy for a number of years, but it never has defined what was considered excessive. Starting Oct. 1, any residential usage that exceeds 250 GB will be considered excessive, and customers who exceed it be asked to limit their Internet use.

Less than 1 percent of Comcast's 14.4 million high-speed Internet customers nationwide will be affected, according to the company. To reach the 250GB limit, a customer would have to do any of the following in a month's time:

* send 50 million e-mails (at 0.05 kilobytes an email);

* download 62,500 songs (at 4 megabytes a song);

* download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 gigabytes a movie);

* upload 25,000 high-resolution digital photos (at 10 megabytes a photo).

At least one other company is experimenting with smaller limits than Comcast is imposing. Time Warner, which owns the Internet provider Adelphia, is trying a service plan in Beaumont, Texas, in which Internet users pay different rates for their amount of usage.

The cheapest plan gives users 5GB of data transfer a month for $29.95. The most expensive plan gives users 40GB of data transfer a month for $54.90. Users are charged an additional $1 for every gigabyte they go over their limit.

"Basically all (Internet service providers) have the same issue: A small amount of our users are using an inordinate amount of bandwidth," Time Warner spokesman Alex Dudley said.

Dudley said the limits in place in Beaumont are just an experiment. The company currently has no plans to expand the limits to all of its residential users.

Not all cable companies limit the amount of data residential customers can access. Michael Keleman, director of government relations for Suddenlink, said his company doesn't currently limit the amount of data its customers can upload or download. He acknowledged that overuse by certain customers is a concern for the company, as it is for other Internet providers.

"It is something that we at Sudden link are reviewing, but there have been no decisions to change our policy," he said.

Copyright State Journal Corporation Sep 12, 2008

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