Charleston the next guinea pig for Comcast’s efforts to address data hogs

Comcast said its average Internet customer uses about 16 to 18 gigabytes of data per month. Its new limit in Charleston is 300 GB under a trial period that starts Nov. 1.

Restrictions have never been popular among web users, but Comcast is sure its customers won’t mind a new data-capping plan that goes into effect in Charleston later this week.

Download lowdown

Data is how much memory it takes to perform online tasks, measured in gigabytes. Here’s an idea of how much data common activities require as measured in megabytes. There are 1,024 megabytes per gigabyte.

Email 0.009 MB per email

Internet radio 0.45 MB per minute

Online games 0.83 MB per minute

Video chat 1.82 MB per minute

High-def video stream 28.6 MB per minute

Source: Time Warner Cable

Starting Nov. 1, each Lowcountry household with Comcast Internet service will be allotted 300 gigabytes of online data per month, but they also can add as many extra blocks of 50 GB as they want — for $10 each.

It’s believed to be the first large Internet provider in the region to offer such an option. Though the upcoming change may set off alarm bells for some customers, Philadelphia-based Comcast said it’s an improvement from its previous policy.

Since 2008, the company’s monthly limit has been capped at 250 GB per household. When customers exceeded that threshold, Comcast didn’t have a firm mechanism for bringing them back in line, other than to issue warnings or threaten to cut off service.

“People didn’t like that static cap. They felt that if they wanted to extend their usage, then they should be allowed to do that,” said Charlie Douglas, a senior director with Comcast.

Charleston is the latest in a series of trial markets the cable giant has used to test the new Internet usage policy in the past year. As with any test period, the company can modify or discontinue the plan at any time.

During the trial period in Charleston, customers will get an extra 50 GB of monthly data than they’re used to having. If they exceed 300 GB, they can pay for more.

“300 GB is well beyond what any typical household is ever going to consume in a month,” Douglas said. “In all of the other trial markets with this (limit), it really doesn’t impact the overwhelming super-majority of customers.”

The average Internet user with Comcast service uses about 16 to 18 GB of data per month, Douglas said.

Customers who use less than five GB per month will start seeing a $5 discount on their bills.

“We think this approach is fair because we’re giving consumers who want to use more data a way to do so, and for consumers who use less, they can pay less,” Douglas said.

The data cap plan does not apply to Comcast’s commercial clients.

Data is unlimited for internet subscribers of Time Warner Cable and WOW! Cable, a provider that acquired Knology last year.

AT&T caps data for DSL internet users at 150 GB per month. Those with high-speed internet get 250 GB per month, and are billed $10 each time they use an extra 50 GB.

Data-capping is a trend many Internet service providers are expected to follow in the next few years as the industry aims to reduce network congestion and to find safeguards against online piracy.

Media researcher Bruce Leichtman said data caps are a strong defense against pirating of content on the web, a rampant problem for media industries since the early 1990s.

File-sharing software that allows users to download and disseminate large files such as TV shows and movies makes piracy easier than ever, but it uses more data than most other online activities. If companies cap the data, it could stem the flow of pirated material on the web.

“When you look at it from an industry perspective, the concern is more about that very small percent who abuse the network, who are excessively using it,” Leichtman said.

Douglas disagreed, insisting that Comcast does not monitor online activity.

“It’s not about piracy, per se,” he said. “We don’t look at what people are doing. The purpose is really a matter of fairness. If people are using a disproportionate amount of data, then they should pay more.”

Comcast urges customers to use its online monitoring tools to keep track of their Internet usage. They can also set up email or text message notifications to tell customers when they are nearing their monthly limit. Visit www.xfinity.com/datausageplan/expansion.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

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