Commentary

Comcast's Data Meters Spur Questions

Comcast has recently drawn much criticism by expanding its use of metered billing to 15% of its subscribers.

Thousands of those people have recently complained to the Federal Communications Commission about the new billing program, which only allows subscribers to use 300 GB of data per month before extra fees kick in. After people reach the 300 GB cap, they're hit with overages of $10 per 50 GB. Comcast began testing that system two years ago in parts of Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi, and has been broadening its test markets ever since.

People have raised numerous concerns about this system, including questions about whether Comcast's meters are even accurate. Comcast says its meters have been validated by NetForecast, which says that if anything, Comcast undercounts the data that people use.

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But some subscribers say they have found otherwise. Last week, it surfaced that "Oleg" -- a Comcast customer and a programmer from Tennessee -- successfully challenged the company's meters.

He said that Comcast's data meter showed he had used 120 GB of data in October and early November -- even though he was out of the country during that time. He then disconnected his modem, turned his smartphone into a modem, and accessed the Web exclusively through his mobile broadband service for six days. During that time, he used a total of 8 GB of smartphone data, but Comcast's meters mistakenly attributed 66 GB of data consumption to him.

Comcast eventually figured out that an employee had entered Oleg's MAC address incorrectly, resulting in the incorrect meter readings.

A different customer, Kimberly Richardson in Atlanta, reportedly said she was informed on Dec. 7 that her family had used its allotted 300 GB of data in just seven days. She told Credit.com that her family had only been home for two of those days.

Even if Comcast's meters usually are accurate, consumers have no easy way to verify that for themselves. Glitches occur, as in Oleg's situation. In other cases, people consume data without realizing it by visiting sites where video automatically plays. This scenario seems especially likely when people keep more than one tab open, and the volume off.

Advocacy groups have long urged the FCC to investigate Comcast's data caps, arguing that the company's costs don't turn on how much data its subscribers consume.

The FCC hasn't yet said whether it intends to do so. But anecdotes about inaccurate meters should give regulators even more reason to scrutinize whether broadband providers stifle their customers' Web use with data caps.

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