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Comcast usage triggers Kafka-esque abusage

Secret bandwidth caps

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Promoters of Comcast Internet are fond of boasting their superiority over DSL and other types of connectivity, pointing to the cable service's "mindblowing speed" and "unlimited" usage plans. Here's what they won't tell you: Comcast has a secret cap on the amount of data users can download, and those going over the limit can find their accounts terminated with little notice.

Just ask John Stith, a Comcast subscriber in Colorado, who downloads audio and other types of files to assist his legally blind stepson. Stith recently received a call from a company representative who said Stith was using too much bandwidth and would be terminated in a moment's notice if he continued to do so. He asked if it would make any difference if he restricted heavy usage to early-morning hours when bandwidth was more plentiful, or barring that, what the limit was so he could comply with the policy. The answers: no and we won't tell you.

"This whole policy seems a bit two-faced when they promote activities like watching webisodes and listening to Internet radio," says Stith, who by no means is the only Comcast customer to report this type of treatment. In addition to another person we spoke with, we found plenty of complaints online, including this blog dedicated to one person's dispute. (The Boston Globe also has a story here.)

Post Existentialism

The runaround reminds us of the plight of Joseph K in Franz Kafka's The Trial. The protagonist is tried and ultimately executed for breaking a law that his prosecutors refuse to reveal. The posthumously published novel became an overarching parable for man's existential predicament in the 20th Century. Now it's become a model of how the cable provider, which operates as a monopoly in many regions, treats its customers.

It also demonstrates internet cable's Achilles' heel. Yes, it may be faster than DSL (although with EarthLink and others offering speeds of 10 Mbps, that isn't universally true anymore). But, unlike cable, when you use DSL you can rest assured your next door neighbor's bandwidth won't come to a screeching halt as soon as you download a weekend's worth of DVD-quality films from Netflix.

Stith detailed in painstaking detail his own ambiguous proceedings with Comcast. Unhappy with the nebulous information provided to him on the call, he asked to speak with a supervisor. The representative refused and also denied Stith's request for a street address where he could send a formal complaint. So Stith called, on two occasions, the local customer service center and relayed the conversation. He was assured the original call most definitely did not come from Comcast and was most likely a prank.

Still uneasy, Stith mailed a letter to Comcast relating his experience. He received a call from a representative in Comcast's corporate office, who confirmed the original call did come from Comcast and invited him to take up the matter with Comcast's security center. A person in that department also refused to specify how much bandwidth Stith's $60-per-month subscription entitled him to, but warned him his account would be terminated without notice if he crossed this invisible line again.

Another subscriber complaining of Comcast's secret usage cap is Cameron Smith, who said he was a Comcast subscriber in Tennessee until January. Shortly after receiving a warning similar to Stith's, he found his connection canceled. To add insult to injury, he was then billed for the the following month's service and was told that the charges wouldn't stop until he returned his modem.

Bait and Switch

Besides criticizing the unpleasantness of having his account canceled for violating an unspecified policy, Smith accuses Comcast of pulling a bait and switch. He says phone representatives in Comcast's sale department assured him the company permitted "unlimited downloads". Indeed when we spoke to a sales representative named David in Comcast's San Jose, Calif., branch he told us "there's no cap".

A Comcast spokeswoman said in a statement that only 0.01 percent of company's subscribers fail to use the service as intended and that the usage policy is in place to ensure the remaining 99.99 percent get adequate service. Customers who are contacted about excessive usage "typically" consume exponentially higher amounts of data than average users "which would include" the equivalent of 13 million emails every month.

She refused to say what the bandwidth cap was or explain why Comcast insists on keeping that detail secret. She also declined to say why the sales people say there are no caps.

All of which brings to mind the howls of protest that would ring out if, say, a cell phone carrier refused to specify the number of minutes available in a subscriber's plan, or promised unlimited long distance and then disconnected users if they actually exercised that option. It makes us wonder if Joseph K hasn't been resurrected as the embodiment of disgruntled Comcast users everywhere. Or why DSL marketers don't pounce on this sad state of affairs at Comcast. ®

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