Broadband speeds are something that we all love, but usage caps mean that those insanely fast connections can quickly become problematic. Whether the carrier decides to charge a fee for a block of data or simply slow down or even stop the flow of data, the result is anything but enjoyable. As faster broadband speeds become available and drive down prices of data packages we already consider to be blazing fast the question is: will data caps increase?
Comcast Leading the Charge
Comcast is saying yes already, moving their data caps on different plans up. The minimum data cap has already seen one increase from the 200 GB/month mark to 250 GB/month, and is now set to increase to 300 GB/month. Packages with higher bandwidth limits will also see a minimum cap increase of 50 GB/month, a figure that Comcast is essentially terming a ‘block’ of data. Comcast currently plans to charge consumers $10 per block of data above and beyond their contractual maximum, so those that truly do live a digital life requiring them to download massive amounts of data will not be left out in the could completely.
While we applaud Comcast’s efforts, we do see a serious problem here. Let’s take a relatively small market like Tucson, AZ for example just to illustrate the point. Before Comcast’s Xfinity branded offerings were released, this market was essentially limited to 20 mbps data rates at the very high end. Today that same area has 105 mbps on tap with far wider availability. There is even an advertisement for a service bundle of digital cable plus 30 mbps broadband for an introductory rate of less than $50 a month! That is a rate far lower than what the 20 Mbps data service ran for on its own just a few years ago when the data limits were put in place. At this stage in the Tucson market, 20 Mbps is actually the lowest advertised speed!
Does the Cap Matter?
Again we applaud the progress Comcast is making, but instead of looking just at the fact that the once high-end tier is now a bargain service let’s do the math comparing the former high end to the current king of the ring. The bottom line is that a 5 fold speed increase with only a 20% increase in bandwidth could spell trouble for those with heavy usage patterns, at least on the surface. But how much is 300 GB in reality?
- An email could be as little as a few kilotbytes or up to around 10 mb in most cases. Let’s just say the average email is maybe 1 mb if it has pictures and/or attachments and a single user received/sent 50 emails a day. That would amount to barely 1.5 GB/month per user in the household or business.
- Netflix notes on their site that ‘Good’ Quality is up to 0.3 GB/hr for streaming while Best Quality is up to 2.3 GB/hr of HD streaming. Assuming that anyone paying for 105 MBps service would opt for HD that would mean over 130 hours per month or about 4 hours and 20 minutes per day.
- Mobile phone apps tend to be in the 1-10 MB range, meaning that literally thousands of apps per month could be downloaded without making a significant dent.
- A 90 minute movie on iTunes tends to be around 1.25 GB for HD, meaning that 8 movies a day or 250 per month would reach the limit.
- Different games have different bandwidth usage models, but it is very hard for even a 10 hour gaming marathon to hit the 250 MB mark without patches being downloaded.
- Browsing and video streaming for advertisements and YouTube are likely to be somewhere between gaming and video streaming depending on usage models.
The bottom line is that for one person the usage cap is completely realistic, it is when we get into multiple people that the cap is in need of serious debate. A household with 4 or more people would still be very hard pressed to push the limits of a 300 GB data cap unless they are serious movie buffs that download apps and engage in constant social media while playing video games at the same time.
The Future Is Great
300 GB/month is a great place to start and only multi-person households are likely to even be aware of usage caps unless they are doing very extreme things with their connection such as hosting torrents, etc. Those that are hosting media or torrents are already going to know the bandwidth usage patterns and should not be at all surprised when they are reached, but that is not the news here. The news here is that the gauntlet has been laid down and other providers will feel pressure to respond. Hopefully this will start a game of one-upmanship between the various providers and we will start to see less disparity between increased speeds and the bandwidth required to take advantage of those speeds.