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Cut Off By Comcast

The Boston Globe ran one of those "wish I'd had that" stories yesterday--a look at how Comcast has been cutting off the Internet service of customers for violating an acceptable-use policy that the company won't spell out.

The piece begins:

Amanda Lee of Cambridge received a call from Comcast Corp. in December ordering her to curtail her Web use or lose her high-speed Internet connection for a year.

Lee, who said she had been using the same broadband connection for years without a problem, was taken aback. But when she asked what the download limit was, she was told there was no limit, that she was just downloading too much.

Then in mid-February, her Internet service was cut off without further warning.

That seems the very definition of Kafkaesque; you're convicted of something without being told what that something was, much less what you should have done to stay on the right side of the law.

This afternoon, Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury said only a tiny number--.01 percent--of customers have wound up in this position. "95 percent of our customers could increase their usage by a hundred times" and not get in trouble, she added.

[Note: I've updated this to correct some quotes after a second conversation with Khoury--the first call was over a less-than-optimal cell-phone connection.]

Khoury said that when customers do show up as engaging in excessive use--for reasons ranging from massive file-sharing activity to neighbors' abuse of an open wireless network to a spyware or virus infection--the company works things out "75 percent" of the time.

But for all of the examples of excessive use cited in a corporate statement Khoury forwarded--"the equivalent of sending 256,000 photos a month, or sending 13 million e-mails every month"--the company will not specify any usage quota. "We do not provide a specific number limit; it fluctuates," she said. "It's more of a reckless usage pattern."

All I know is, it's hard to play by the rules if nobody will tell you what they are.

It's not that Internet providers shouldn't be able to boot users who spam or spread viruses--every sane provider has such a rule--or impose a bandwidth quota if they think it necessary. But most companies doing that sort of thing document how their rules operate and don't just run ads (warning: annoying Flash presentation) that talk about how much music and video you can download and how fast you can get it all.

Satellite-broadband provider HughesNet, for instance, explains its Fair Access Policy on its Web site; Verizon Wireless once kept its own bandwidth quota as some kind of secret but now includes that detail (albeit in the finest of print).

If you've been bumped offline by your Internet provider--Comcast or anybody else--we'd like to know. Tell us about it in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 13, 2007; 4:48 PM ET
Categories:  Telecom  
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