Comcast Pays Florida $150k For Bandwidth Practices

Florida AG Bill McCollumComcast emerged from recent Federal Communications Commission proceedings without monetary sanctions, but the company wasn't so lucky in Florida. There, Attorney General Bill McCollum extracted $150,000 from Comcast to settle an investigation into its bandwidth management techniques.

The Florida authorities objected to Comcast's practice of threatening to cut off subscribers for "excessive" bandwidth use, without spelling out what constituted excessive.

Comcast late last month announced it would officially impose monthly bandwidth caps of 250 GB, or the equivalent of around 125 standard-def movies.

But prior to that announcement, Comcast had not officially set a specific maximum. Instead, the company used to warn the top 1,000 bandwidth users--out of around 14.4 million customers--that they needed to curtail their Web use or risk being cut off.

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Florida authorities found that policy to be problematic for several reasons. One was that users had no way of knowing how much bandwidth they could use before becoming one of the 1,000 heaviest users.

"It is the position of the Attorney General that Comcast did not sufficiently disclose in a clear and conspicuous manner to the consumer the amount of bandwidth that it deemed to be excessive," the settlement agreement states. "When consumers asked Comcast to specify a level of bandwidth usage above which they could not go, Comcast did not provide consumers with a specific bandwidth usage limit."

Secondly, during 2003 and 2004, Comcast sometimes advertised "unlimited" Internet service. The Attorney General found that consumers could have interpreted those ads to mean they would be able to download as many files as they wanted.

In the Florida case, Comcast agreed that it will not terminate any subscribers for excessive Web use without first defining the term. Because Comcast already revised its bandwidth policy to spell out a 250 GB cap, that part of the agreement will not have much practical effect.

Groups that advocate for increased broadband access saw the recent moves as a mixed bag. On the one hand, they say that companies like Comcast should clearly spell out any bandwidth limits. But they also argue that caps can leave some people without options, because there's still not a lot of competition among broadband competitors in much of the country.

"Over the long haul, discouraging the top users is a bad idea," said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press. Instead, he said, companies need to figure out how to provide more bandwidth, especially since demand is only likely to increase over time. "We all know that today's heavy bandwidth hog is tomorrow's everyday user."

Art Brodsky, communications director at Public Knowledge, adds that one problem with the Florida settlement is that most users have no way of knowing when they have approached the 250 GB limit. "How does a consumer measure it?" he asks. "There aren't that many tools out there."

Bandwidth caps are not the only way Comcast has tried to manage its network. The company also used to interfere with peer-to-peer traffic--a move that resulted in FCC sanctions last month. The agency found that Comcast violated the principle that all lawful applications and content should be treated equally. Comcast appealed that order last week.

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