By February 4, 2016 Read More →

Know What You’re Paying For: Important Information About Your Cable Service

coaxial cable

I am a lifelong resident of Lakewood, and probably one of the most wired residents of the city. As a child my home was one of the first to sign up for Cox high speed internet. Prior to this, we had three phones lines in the house, such that three people could be online simultaneously. My father and I ran ethernet cable through the walls to every room in the house in preparation for Cox Cable’s new service. I signed up for my own Cox Cable account when I moved out at eighteen. I have always gone for the higher end service packages, needing the speed to stream media, run servers and virtual private networks (VPN’s), and more. Aside from my enthusiasm for networking speeds, I have worked in IT for a number of years. With my combined years of experience both professionally, and as slightly obsessed technology enthusiast, please heed my words when I say that no one should be paying Cox Cable for the excessive data fees that many of you will start seeing on your bills.

Over the summer, Cox Cable sent out letters to its customers in the area, informing them that monthly data caps would begin to be enforced and incur overage fees starting this fall. Upon receiving my letter, I immediately called their customer support number. It took several transfers to through a variety of departments and managers to find someone who was even aware of this program shift. The only material they had was a copy of the letter I had received. Without trying to fault them for this lack of information, they were unqualified to answer any questions about the program, technical or otherwise. In fact, it was the official policy of Cox Cable to not comment on the new policy change. Even my calls to the corporate offices in Atlanta proved fruitless. No matter how high up the chain of command I was transferred, no one could tell me anything more than what was in the letter.

First, a little background into the technical details of our modern internet infrastructure. If you do not consider yourself a “tech person,” do not worry: communicating tech concepts to non tech people has long been part of my job description. Data speeds are measured in bits, usually with the added detail of “per second”. One thousand bits make up one kilobit, one thousand kilobits equal one megabit, and one thousand megabits equals a gigabit. Megabit per second (Mbps) is the most commonly used speed measurement. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) defines high speed internet (broadband) as starting at twenty-five megabits per second. The reason the FCC chose twenty-five megabits per second as the new minimum threshold for broadband is because that is the minimum connection speed required to stream 4K Ultra-high definition video content. The backbone of our digital infrastructure uses fiber optic cable, though there are devices that convert that optic signal to electrical impulses for the copper that runs into our homes. Fiber to the home is possible, but no one in our area provides that service to residents. A fiber optic cable is made up of thousands of individual strands which each carry light pulses across the line. The amount of data a fiber optic cable can carry varies, but the current record for speed is 1.05 Petabits per second. That equals 109 Mbps, which in real world terms is enough capacity to watch 42,000,000 4K Ultra High Definition movies simultaneously. While this is the current highest capacity, less bandwidth dense cable can still manage 15-100 Terabits per second (1.5×107 to 108 megabits, or 600,000 to 4,000,000 4K movies simultaneously.) Considering Lakewood’s population of roughly 52,000, a single fiber optic cable could provide enough bandwidth for every resident to stream up to seventy-two 4K movies simultaneously.

Now that we have covered speed and how data is transmitted, let us move on to cost of this data transmission. While exact numbers are hard to come by, thanks to the dotcom boom/bust of the 90’s we have a very sizeable fiber optic infrastructure in this country, with large portions of it going unused. This unused fiber optic cable is also called “dark fiber”. Most of the cost of fiber optic cable comes from the installation. However, thanks to the dotcom bust, a large portion of the fiber optic cable that had been laid in the 90’s ended up being repossessed by banks after the companies that installed it went out of business. It was then later sold for pennies on the dollar. Since fiber optic cable requires very little maintenance, the majority of the fiber optic cable from the 90’s is perfectly fine. The only part of a fiber optic connection that requires regular maintenance/replacement are the devices that convert the light pulses into electrical signals for the copper wire to the homes. This of course means that the current owner of fiber optic cables in this country probably got them without the large cost of installation, and only have to cover the relatively small amount of maintenance. The cost of the moving of the data (the actual sending of the light pulses and conversion to and from electrical signals) is a bit of an industry secret. In February of 2011, the Financial Post estimated that the cost per gigabyte of delivery for Canadian internet providers was a few cents to fifteen cents per gigabyte. While we cannot make a one-to-one comparison given the different laws and infrastructure deployment in Canada and the United States, we have a rough idea of how cheap bandwidth is. If anything, given the vast overcapacity of our networks, and the ability to make use of dark fiber, our transmission costs would be cheaper than in Canada.

The excuse most Internet service providers (ISP’s) use for these bandwidth cap policies is something along the lines of “Excess bandwidth used by modern streaming services require these caps in order to better manage our networks.” This claim is nothing more than a bold faced lie. The internet is built on a standard called TCP/IP protocol. That standard has been in place since the early days of the Internet and will remain for a very long time. You can think of TCP/IP as the mechanism that directs the data traffic and ensures that every piece of it gets to its destination. One of the functions of TCP/IP is the automatic throttling of traffic when there is congestion. The protocol (or more appropriately the devices that utilize it) will start to automatically slow the transmission of data when the devices do not receive confirmation of data reaching the target successfully. What this means is that if an ISP were experiencing “network congestion” from excessive usage, the network would automatically slow in order to ensure the proper transmission of data. Not only would the network automatically handle the traffic without the involvement of the ISP, the suggested “solution” is a blatant contradiction. While this so far has not been the case with Cox Cable (mainly due to the lack of training for their call center reps), the commonly touted “solution” is to upgrade to a higher tier of service with faster speeds. If network congestion was a real problem, selling you a higher speed would only give you the ability to consume more data, and add to the congestion. It would be like putting a turbocharger in a car as a solution to the car going too fast. However, as we previously examined, congestion gets sorted out on its own; plus, thanks to our newfound understanding about the capacity of fiber optic cable, we know that it would take an infeasible amount of usage in order to generate network congestion.

To put all this information into more real world terms, we can look at the internet plans offered by Cox Cable (we will be using normal price information, and not any potential promo prices. These also do not include any applicable taxes and fees.) The most basic plan is $51.99 per month for 15 megabits/second with a 250 gigabyte monthly cap. $65.99 per month gets you 50 megabits/second with a 350 gigabyte cap. $77.99 for 100 megabits/second and a 700 gigabyte cap. Lastly we have $99.99 per month for 150 megabits/second and a 2000 gigabyte monthly plan. In order to put this information into relatable terms and measurements we will be using the amount of data consumed by Netflix as our guide. All of the plans offered by Cox Cable are a fast enough connection to watch Netflix in 1080P high definition. According to Netflix, watching at that resolution consumes 3 gigabytes per hour of data. That means that on the lowest level of service you can go through your entire monthly cap with 83.3 hours of Netflix. The next tier is 116.7, then 233.3, and lastly 666.7 hours of Netflix respectively. On average, Americans watch five hours of television per day. A family of four would collectively watch twenty hours per day of television. With more and more people becoming “cord cutters” and getting rid of their cable subscriptions in favor of services such as Netflix or Hulu, twenty hours per day with a monthly limit of anything but the highest level of service would cause you to hit your monthly limit. Not only would you hit your limit, you could do so in under a week (depending on which plan you subscribe to.) If that rate of consumption held steady for the month, you would end up paying an extra $320 per month on the lowest tier of service. Even if you were at the $77.99 per month level, you could still end up paying an additional $230 per month in overage fees. Keep in mind that is with just Netflix. That does not take into consideration Facebook, music downloading/streaming, updates for all your devices, playing and downloading video games, and all ther other casual web browsing we do.

Speed of Service 15 Mbps 50 Mbps 100 Mbps 150 Mbps
Monthly Cap 250 Gigabyte 350 Gigabyte 700 Gigabyte 2000 Gigabyte
Hours of Netflix required to hit cap 83.3 116.7 233.3 666.7
Day of month you will hit cap

(assuming a family of four who uses Netflix at 1080P resolution in place of cable television)

4 5 11 N/A
Additional fees that would be incurred

(assuming no change in viewing habits for the family)

$320 $300 $230 N/A
Amount of hours it would take to consume monthly limit assuming a constant download at advertised speed 40.72 17.1 17.1 32.58

Now that we have a working knowledge of the basics of internet infrastructure, we can take a critical look at the statements that have been made to me by Cox Cable over the last six months. First, most call center representatives are completely unaware of this program. Northeast Ohio is the test market for this program, and the Powers That Be inside Cox’s upper management have elected to simply not inform their own people of the policy. When I did get connected to people that we at least aware of the policy, they had been issued a short memo stating that the new policy was in effect and that there was to be no further comment. So the official policy was to not communicate any details, explanation, or answer any questions about this dramatic shift to their paying customers. A number of representatives at varying levels of authority also informed me that Cox Cable has an over-abundance of infrastructure to accommodate today’s bandwidth-heavy traffic. As a paying customer of a service, I expect my questions to be answered. It does not matter if you are a stay-at-home parent wondering why the bill went up or a technical expert requesting highly detailed explanations, Cox Cable should be obligated to inform us as to what their policies are, and why any changes to our service are being enacted.

While I have been researching and working on this article, a bit of a miracle has happened. There was a leak of internal documents from Comcast (the largest cable provider and ISP in the country) concerning its own monthly cap policies. In these documents, it was stated that these policies have nothing to do with network management. Instead, the stated reason for these caps is “Fairness and providing a more flexible policy to our customers.” What they do not explain is how these policies are “fair”, or what “flexibility” the consumer gains. If your average American family can use up the entire monthly allotment and get charged huge fees is that “fair” or “flexible”? The only thing these programs accomplish is padding out the bottom line of massive corporations. According to the Huffington Post, Time Warner Cable (the number two ISP in the country) has a profit margin of 97% on their internet services. In order to comprehend what an obscene amount of profit that is, let’s compare it to one of the most profitable Las Vegas casinos, Wynn Resorts. According to Wynn Resorts had a profit margin of 37.48% for September of 2015. Their highest profit margin reported by the website is 46.29% in June of 2005. Personally, I find it deeply disturbing that the modern technology that we are dependent on is operating at a profit margin of more than double the notoriously profitable casino industry. It is also worth noting that currently Time Warner Cable does not have a metered connection policy. They are operating at a 97% profit margin without the implementation of a program that is nothing more than a shameless cash grab.

This is a call to arms. I urge all of you who have had these charges added to your bill to call and demand they be taken off. Even if you haven’t managed to go over your monthly limit and get charged extra fees, I urge you to call and complain about the change in policy. Cox will document all complaints made about these policy changes. We are the test market, and if our voice is heard, we can undo this greedy and manipulative program and prevent it from spreading to other neighborhoods. Share this article with your friends and family, post it on Facebook and Twitter. Demand affordable access to one of the most important tools of our modern area.

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