Uh-oh! Comcast Throttles Bandwidth

We’ve hit a speedbump on the way to Internet TV. It’s probably not the first, and certainly won’t be the last. The Washington Post reported Friday that some Comcast customers have had their accounts cancelled because they were using too much bandwidth. According to the article, the company won’t reveal its download limits, but they are believed to be about the equivalent of 1,000 songs a day or four feature-length films. The company does say that they send a warning notice to a user a month in advance of taking any action, to give them the opportunity to upgrade their service or change their usage pattern.

The way cable Internet connections work is that that all the subscribers in one area are essentially workstations on the same local network. If one user initiates lots of file transfers, then it can slow down performance for others on the same segment. And regardless of the topology used by any Internet provider, there are also bandwidth limits to their servers, routers, and Internet connection.

One part of the problem is that many Internet contracts appear to promise “unlimited” access to the Internet. Most personal accounts prohibit the operation of a commercial server, however, because that can use lots of bandwidth. Until recently, only commercial servers tended to have the huge volume of hits that would demand appreciable bandwidth.

That has changed. Now, video over the Internet — especially high resolution content — places enormous demands on the system bandwidth. High-speed connections make it practical for users to download such content in a reasonable length of time. But it can tie up the service provider’s resources, and this apparently is what drives Comcast to try to limit some users.

Comcast’s actions are not unique. There are reports that users of Verizon’s wireless BroadbandAccess service have had their accounts cancelled for using too much bandwidth. And some industry analysts report that we may start encountering more instances of bandwidth bottlenecks as demand for Internet access continues to grow rapidly.

All of this is important news for TV viewers who are interested in IPTV services such as Joost, or hope to download rental movies from NetFlix or Blockbuster. As the content moves from standard definition to HD, the amount of bandwidth required increases by roughly a factor of four. So let’s hope that Internet providers are making the investments necessary to increase the capacity of their networks, so that we call can enjoy the IPTV services as they develop. If you have any doubts about your usage, now might be a good time to contact your provider and get a clarification of their bandwidth policy.