Comcast's 'data meter' sparks questions about broadband caps

Verizon Wireless said it will likely move to a usage-based pricing scheme when it rolls out its high-speed LTE service, for example. Many wireless data providers, including AT&T, have capped their monthly data plans.

Verizon has also indicated it may adopt metered billing for its residential broadband services.

Fewer than 1 percent of Comcast customers ever come close to exceeding the 250-gigabyte cap, said company spokesman Charlie Douglas. The median customer uses between two and four gigabytes per month, he said.

Douglas said 250 gigabytes would allow you to download 200 movies or 62,500 songs a month--much more content than the typical user would consume.

"If they go over that, they may get a call from us," he said. "If they go over again and remain one of our heaviest users, we reserve the right to suspend service for a year."

But as more consumers are downloading movies and streaming TV shows on their computers, bandwidth use is inching up. Imposing caps on consumers can become a form of discrimination, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, this morning at a panel I moderated about copyright and net neutrality.

"Public Knowledge doesn't oppose usage-basd pricing," she said. "But if you set the cap low enough you discriminate against high-bandwidth applications."

If consumers have a finite amount of bandwidth each month, they could be forced to stay away from bit-hogging sites, like video high-quality video streaming services.

Time Warner Cable, which has split from content company Time Warner, tried its hand at usage-based billing in Texas last year. But the company suspended the trial of the program when consumers balked.

Matthew Henry, Internet Policy Counsel for Data Foundry, a database company, said on the panel that usage-based pricing presents serious "conflicts of interest" for cable companies that provide both cable TV and Internet services.

As people watch more cable content online, as both Comcast and Time Warner are pushing with their TV Everywhere services, more demands are placed on their broadband networks.

"Companies have a real incentive to force consumers to turn off the computer and pick up the remote," he said.

It's an interesting time for the issue to be raised at the FCC, which is in the midst of mulling over net neutrality rules and ways to get broadband to more people. At the same time, several FCC Commissioners have supported "flexible pricing" regimes.