Comcast robs broadband of its joy

— 12:59 AM on August 18, 2000

It shouldn't be hard to keep your customers happy if you're a cable modem ISP. After all, for about 40 bucks a month, you're usually giving folks a very fast 'net connection without any long-term contracts. It's a great product. And competing with the DSL—with its legion of bureaucratic snafus, spotty coverage, and its fundamental challenge of passing data over very bad copper wire—isn't really that difficult. Keep the service working, provide moderately competent support, and you're set.

Yet Comcast has managed to upset their customers by going back on the service's basic promise. First, last year, they capped upstream speeds at 128Kbps—positively Draconian next to Road Runner's 384Kbps, for instance. And lower than necessary to provide good service in areas with high concentrations of users, so long as the cable network is segmented reasonably well and the appropriate equipment is in place.

That was a bad call, but it was almost forvigable. Now, Comcast has gone even further, modifying their acceptable use policy (AUP) without advance notice to their customers, and banning the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) over their service. Naturally, some customers are positively irate, as CNET has reported, since they use their cable modems to telecommute. Comcast's justification is that their service is residential, and VPNs are a commerical animal, so banning them is in line with the Comcast/Excite@home mission. But as one customer put it:

"The entire tone is to restrict people from Web hosting or running a business using @Home service. Then at the end it makes a blanket statement about VPN that can be taken either way, i.e., you can't run a VPN at home, and you can't talk to one anywhere else," the customer said.
Exactly. If there's a more legitmate use for a residential 'net connection than telecommuting, I don't know what it is. This decision makes no sense, unless Comcast is somehow looking to exact a price premium from telecommuters. However, if they were aiming to do that, I'd think they'd offer some alternative when announcing the change to their AUP.

On a personal note, after shopping around among the alternatives, my dad just had Comcast cable Internet service installed for the express purpose of running a VPN over it. Then he received the e-mail message notifying him of the change in the AUP. Spectacular.

This move also doesn't make much sense in terms of bandwidth conservation, since peak time for cable modem ISPs is about 8:00PM to 1:00AM, give or take. Telecommuters connecting during the day—when the bulk of 'em no doubt will—are probably just using bandwidth that would otherwise go to waste.

So its (potentially) best customers are up in arms, and Comcast has illustrated for us all the single biggest drawback of cable modem service: For all their natural advantages in this market, cable companies haven't the foggiest how to provide a service any more complex than pay-per-view pornos.


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