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The largest US broadband ISP ComCast is introducing its customers to the idea of "you get what you pay for" and is meeting a fierce backlash.

Cable provider Comcast, which acquired the AT&T@Home network, is experimenting with capping users bandwidth, suspending users who exceed what Comcast deems acceptable usage. But what is acceptable?

Unlike British cable provider NTL, which pegs users to a maximum of 1GB of downloads per day, Comcast simply isn't saying how much users are entitled to use. The written policy is vague, referring to " an unusually large burden on the network"; a spokesperson cited at CNET said that the top one per cent of downloaders would be penalized. This affects around 240,000 users, but which 240,000?

"It's like a Cop giving you a ticket for speeding, so you say to the cop 'what speed was I doing' - the Cop says "sorry I don't know" , so you say 'what is the speed limit?' and the cop says "sorry I don't know, but you're still busted!" notes a stateside reader.

ISPs blame badly-designed P2P software for soaking up the bandwidth. Systems such as Gnutella were designed to avoid single points of failure, rather than for efficiency. So ISPs now find themselves in the same position as the retail banks, which have been trying to reduce the number of unprofitable customers for many years. (In the UK banks employ fruit codes too distinguish "cherries" from the "lemons, which is more imaginative than the classifications used in the US).

Comcast's less than transparent policy disturbs the assumption that flat-rate, predictable pricing means users need not worry about bandwidth costs. These are very real, but with the media firm (which recently sold the QVC shopping channel) sitting on a cash pile of $8 billion, pleading hardship isn't going to be well received by blackballed users.

Whatever happened to the bandwidth glut? ®

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