The Limits of ‘Unlimited’
The Limits of ‘Unlimited’
The Limits of ‘Unlimited’

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    Thanks to Comcast and Verizon/AT&T, we now know a little more about the limits of “unlimited.”

    Comcast announced that, starting Oct. 1, it will impose a 250 GB cap on usage. At the moment, the announcement is relatively benign, although there are lots of dangers lurking in the weeds.

    Comcast has long complained that it needs to engage in legitimate “network management,” as opposed to the management techniques the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found not to be so legitimate. One of the meat-cleaver approaches would be to lower the demands on the network as a whole. However, this new cap doesn’t appear to help Comcast meet its network management challenges. By Comcast’s own admission, this new cap will, at the moment, affect less than one percent of their users, so it’s not as if demand will be suppressed sufficiently to help the network run more smoothly.

    That being the case, Comcast has still held out the possibility of delaying by 10 min. to 20 min. the traffic from heavy users. The company hasn’t said anything more since Bloomberg broke the story, except to say it hasn’t made any decisions yet. That’s not at all comforting.

    The whole concept of a “heavy user” is, of course, open to interpretation. Today’s heavy user is tomorrow’s medium or light user. It’s like buying a computer. Today’s newest and fastest model will be the middle of the road in a few months. As more bandwidth-intensive applications become more prevalent, whether streaming HD movies or gaming, customers are going to use lots more of their more or less unlimited bandwidth. We don’t know how Comcast will adjust the cap as time goes on. We do know that it will have to be adjusted.

    The concept of a “heavy user” is also subject to the stress on the network at any given moment. Someone downloading, or uploading, lots of high-definition content at 2 a.m. is less of a bother to the network than an otherwise “normal” user watching a TV show or movie during peak periods, say 8 p.m. It’s uncertain how Comcast took that variable into consideration either.

    Even with all of those variables, it’s not at all clear how users are supposed to track their usage, or even what counts toward the cap. Comcast said customers can go online and find their own tools. Most bandwidth meters online now count the speeds of download and upload, not the amount of bits flowing through the connection. One person’s count may differ from another. There should be a set of common counting tools, readily available from Comcast, which a user can consult, much like checking minutes of use on a cell phone. That way, customers could not only check their activity, but see what it is they are doing to run up the tab.

    It would be very unfortunate if, for example, videos downloaded from, or uploaded to a Comcast or Comcast partner site, were exempt from the cap. Such an omission would be a serious Net Neutrality violation.

    Enough, though, about Comcast. Let’s turn to Verizon and AT&T. Not long ago I joined the BlackBerry Brigade. I resisted for a long time, in part because I wasn’t thrilled by going to meetings and seeing everyone around the table playing with their little screens instead of paying attention to what was going on. However, I also realized that, as the PK communications director, reporters assumed I had some sort of device so that they could email me at any time and expect a response. So I broke down and got a nice little BlackBerry.

    In order to use the service, I have a feature called “Blackberry Broadband UNL” (unlimited), which is $45 per month on top of the normal cell phone rate. There is, however, at catch. I have “unlimited” service only as long as I use the Blackberry in the way the company says I can use it. If the BlackBerry functions as a handheld, then my service is more or less “unlimited” because, according to Verizon, it uses relatively little bandwidth. The “unlimited” plan was geared to using the BlackBerry for email, Internet access and other low-bandwidth uses, a Verizon spokesman said.

    But hook it up to my laptop, and the BlackBerry ceases being a BlackBerry and “unlimited” ceases to be unlimited. Then my BlackBerry becomes subject to another plan entirely, a “tethering” plan. This use of my BlackBerry costs $15 monthly on top of the other charges because, Verizon said, it uses more bandwidth than a stand-alone device. It also comes with a 5GB per month usage cap. AT&T has a similar plan.

    Of course, it’s always possible that I use my BlackBerry browser more and my laptop browser, when connected to a BlackBerry, less – as an emergency measure when for some reason I can’t connect to the wireless network through the laptop. That doesn’t matter. This is simply another limitation to the mirage of the “unlimited” world.