Simply Comcastrated

by Tony Romm*
Special to iVoryTowerz

Comcast's recent announcement — that it plans to test-drive a broadband access plan that charges users proportional to their bandwidth usage — should have triggered internet criticism ad nauseum, but the media blogosphere’s reaction instead seemed inconceivably tame. The ever-vociferous MediaBistro stayed silent on the proposed meter, barely even mentioning it in its daily news roundup. PressThink, a media criticism page run by NYU Professor Jay Rosen, similarly declined a substantive comment. Even Jack Shafer, author of the all-encompassing Press Box column at Slate.com, paid Comcast’s maneuver little attention. Predictably, the mainstream media (MSM to many on the 'net) were mum too; the issue faded quickly in a day frontloaded with hackneyed Democratic primary analysis, the substance of which was equally questionable.

Where was the requisite fury — that unique scorn and unparalleled admonition that characterizes web users and new media lovers? When Verizon attempted to block text message advertisements from supporters of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice America in 2007, customers rallied at such an unprecedented speed the company had no choice but to reconsider its stance. Months ago, when Comcast faced accusations it was slowing users’ connections to BitTorrent, a questionable file sharing method, the media blogs were ablaze with claims of censorship. (Please see, "That's Comcastic: Internet Disconnection," for more background.)

Yet, the fire seemed all but extinguished amid Comcast’s most recent blunder. Did web users finally resign to their own presupposition — the internet is so egalitarian that inhibitions drive customers to less obstructed companies and services — believing instead the market would sufficiently subdue any blowback?

If tech blogs — not to mention the MSM’s lackluster reportage — are any indication, the answer is a resounding "no." If anything, the media criticism community’s relative silence is more the result of a lack of technological understanding than a faith in the market, no matter how precarious that conclusion may seem.

Take, for instance, the way newspapers reported the limits. Sure, the MSM accurately presented the numbers — that meters would cap at either 5GB or 40GB, depending on the plan — but how much exposition did reporters devote to explaining those digits? The Associated Press made a noteworthy attempt, reporting:

“Those who mainly do Web surfing or e-mail have little reason to pay attention to the traffic caps: a gigabyte is about 3,000 Web pages, or 15,000 e-mails without attachments. But those who download movies or TV shows will want to pay attention. A standard-definition movie can take up 1.5 gigabytes, and a high-definition movie can be 6 to 8 gigabytes.”
Even that, however, seems insufficient, and a better calculation explains why. Put it this way: If the average hour-episode of my favorite television show consumes 667 MB of my hard drive, and 1 GB equals 1,000 MB, I could only download 7.5 episodes of the show each month under the cheaper, 5 GB plan (We’re using the Showtime series Dexter here for an example, downloaded via iTunes, for transparency’s sake). And that, of course, is assuming you browse not a single Web page, upload or download not a single e-mail attachment and watch not a single YouTube video all month.

Sure, users could escape these confines by purchasing more bandwidth, which still might be cheaper than their current standard monthly rate. But both limits, which also suffer wholly from insufficient details, only underscore the fact this is a media misstep as much as it is technological trouble. Of course, meters affect the way designers construct their pages, and caps decrease overall Web portability — truly egregious concerns. Underneath those logistical flaws, however, is a consequence of content: The inevitability that users would forgo access to multimedia in a vain attempt to manage their internet bills. When degree of access is contingent upon income, such that some users can’t afford to reach the internet public sphere, the sanctity of internet egalitarianism, if not free speech wholesale, is at stake

Indeed, Comcast has a legitimate interest in policing its own networks — that hermit-esque neighbor of yours who spends hours pirating copies of World of Warcraft affects community bandwidth, even if only slightly. But the limitations of metered browsing far outweigh the inconvenience of a slowed connection, insomuch that it threatens net neutrality — another one of those tech concepts most users and reporters don’t understand.

Rest assured, the market will have its say. If Comcast’s new billing plan angers enough users, the company will have to renege on the plan or face millions in losses to Verizon DSL (which doesn’t have to worry about similar bandwidth problems). Even so, content controls of any kind — from passive metered browsing to more scrupulous breaches of net neutrality — should invite the same degree of criticism as any other form of censorship, the tech and media criticism blogs be damned.

*Tony Romm is currently an intern at Slate.

For more background on this blog's criticism of Comcast, please see these posts:
(Photo by twenty_questions of London, U.K. via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

Why the MSM didn't pay more attention to the bandwidth story:
-- It's summer. It's hot. The story is complicated. And we're on vacation.
-- Bandwidth limits don't affect us. We download at work and don't pay for it themselves.
-- Comcast, as savvy as it is evil, made sure to announce the news during summer when there was a lot else going on.

Tony Romm said...

I don't doubt most of that. The media are primarily concerned with the election and gas prices, for better or worse. But Comcast has been discussing bandwidth limits for quite some time. Since as recent as 2007, customers have complained about an "invisible limit" -- some unspoken peak that, once surpassed, would result in a nasty letter from Comcast. And many of the articles about those caps were filed long before the '08 election, during presumably slower news seasons, to the same effect.

As is the case now, the absence of any scorn was probably the result of inadequate reportage. Number heavy articles often failed to put gigabytes and connection speeds into context -- to the average user, "you can only download 6 movies" sounds much more harsh than "your cap is 18GB" -- so there was an overall lack of urgency. Thankfully, the market will correct itself... but to say the story, then or now, was immensely under-reported is certainly an overstatement.

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