Comcast's Web limits: Saving bandwidth or stifling innovation?

The first computer I ever bought had a whopping six-gigabyte hard drive inside - far more storage capacity than anyone might have ever dreamed of using some ten years ago. Back then, no one was really downloading music or uploading digital photos, let alone streaming video or placing VoIP phone calls.

The first computer I ever bought had a whopping six-gigabyte hard drive inside - far more storage capacity than anyone might have ever dreamed of using some ten years ago. Back then, no one was really downloading music or uploading digital photos, let alone streaming video or placing VoIP phone calls. Today, in a digital and data-heavy world, six gigs is laughable. Even the basic version of Windows Vista needs 15 gigs for an installation.

Innovation has prospered by the exponential growth in technologies such as chips, storage capacity and Internet speeds. Now, that very growth could face a real threat by the likes of Comcast and the companies that are sure to follow in its footsteps. Starting Oct. 1, Comcast is imposing a 250 GB cap on the amount of data that its customers can access in a month. Yes, I understand that 250 GB is a lot of data today, just like my 6-gig hard drive was a lot of storage way back when.

But there's just something about a cap on Internet access that screams out "Cap on Innovation." Think I'm wrong? How about this? How many Comcast residential customers do you think would have stayed clear of online clips of Olympics coverage earlier this month, simply because they don't know how to measure usage in megabytes or gigabytes (instead of hours or minutes)? How many do you think will say no to technologies like VoIP because they'll be afraid of going over their Internet cap? Do you know of any parents out there who might forbid their kids from playing the XBox 360 because it connects to the Internet?

And what about the workplace and the Web-centric tools that were put in place to help trim a company's bottom line - things like video conferencing, Skype International calling and even WebEx presentations? I realize I'm getting ahead of myself by worrying about the caps imposed at the enterprise level. But just because no one has suggested it yet doesn't mean it won't happen.

A cap on Internet usage is a huge step backward, especially in a nation that's borderline third-world when it comes to broadband adoption and usage. I understand that Comcast, like other broadband providers, are getting crushed by the amount of data that people are using, slowing the stream of information in the pipeline and potentially upsetting other paying customers. But is this cap really what it will take to keep customers happy? HA! Do I sound happy?

Just last week, I had a great chat with Jeff Aaron, VP of Marketing at Silver Peak Systems, about WAN acceleration and deduplication as ways of maximizing bandwidth in the enterprise. When I heard about Comcast's cap, I immediately called him (on a regular phone line, not a VoIP one) to hear his thoughts. Of course, he said he couldn't speak for Comcast but did wonder if Comcast had looked at ways to beef up its own infrastructure before imposing something like a cap.

"Certainly, there's a finite amount of bandwidth and it needs to be managed," he said. "But once you start capping, how do you determine how much is enough?"

I love how Comcast set the stage for its announcement: "We’ve listened to feedback from our customers who asked that we provide a specific threshold for data usage and this would help them understand the amount of usage that would qualify as excessive."

So... you're doing us a favor?

I remember when early dial-up Internet services made a bundle by providing us with slow Internet connections that came with limits. I also remember when they got creamed by broadband services coming in and offering us faster speeds with no limits. It was like a two-lane country road leading to nowhere had been converted to an around-the-world autobahn. Wide open road, free to drive as fast as we could into the horizon. Ah, those were the days.

Now, we're back to watching the clock, or the gigabyte meter - if there were such a thing. Comcast took the easy way out by imposing limits on its paying customers when instead, it could have individually gone after excessive users and insisted that they upgrade to business accounts. Maybe, the company could have offered discounts to those who barely used the Internet in a given month - but I've never heard of the cable industry lowering prices.

Instead, Comcast tried to solve its own problem by biting the hand that feeds it - the customers who pay for this service. By imposing a cap, I don't think Comcast solved any of its problems. On the contrary, I suspect Comcast has opened a whole new can of worms for itself.