Every now and again, stories surface of ISPs that threaten their heaviest users, typically with the goal of convincing them to reduce their network consumption or purchase “unlimited” bandwidth options. Cox appears to have hit upon another method — first threatening and then following through on cutting the bandwidth speeds to entire neighborhoods as a means of punishing a single customer.
Ars Technica has the story of a Cox customer who was paying the company $100 a month for gigabit service, plus $50 per month for unlimited data. The customer, “Mike,” uses 8-12TB of data per month on device backups and “data sharing via various (encrypted) information-sharing protocols.” Mike had configured his system to perform the bulk of this activity between 1 AM and 8 AM, when local network traffic would be the lowest. His activity has been more-or-less constant over four years, but this only became a problem in mid-May.
The idea that Cox might need its customers to step back their usage during a pandemic isn’t crazy, and there’s nothing wrong with a company asking its heaviest users to reduce their consumption in a time of crisis, but virtually everything about the way Cox handled this was done incorrectly.
First, while the company informed Mike it expected him to make a “substantial decrease” in his data usage or face service cancellation, it refused to provide a specific number or indication of how much consumption was now allowed.
Second, the email Cox Communications sent made it clear that Mike’s entire neighborhood was being punished for his internet usage and would be until July 15, whether he personally reduced his usage or not.
During these unprecedented times, many people are working and schooling from home, and maintaining connectivity is important. We are working to provide a positive Internet experience for everyone, so we’ve adjusted our Gigablast upload speeds in your neighborhood from 35Mbps to 10Mbps, now through July 15, 2020. Your download speeds have not changed.
Ars confirmed with Cox that it was limiting performance in certain neighborhoods where high-bandwidth users lived, but the company refused to provide details on how many customers need to be using a large amount of monthly bandwidth (or how much they need to use) in order to trigger a performance reduction for everyone.
It also refused to answer questions on why a customer who pays for both unlimited data and a top tier plan aren’t allowed to use them, and it wouldn’t speak to the question of why its network was unable to handle a 35Mbps upload from 1 AM – 8 AM in the morning. Cox also didn’t respond to questions about why it hasn’t invested in upgrading its infrastructure backend to support customers who pay for top-tier service.
Cox’s decision to throttle its heaviest users isn’t much different from decisions we’ve seen other ISPs make at different times, but punishing the entire neighborhood for the actions of one person while simultaneously refusing to tell that person what they needed to do to bring themselves into compliance are collectively extremely consumer hostile.
Slashing people from 35Mbps to 10Mbps is a non-trivial bandwidth cut that could impact how quickly people are able to upload video or other media projects — and the chances of needing to handle that kind of rich media work online have gone up markedly in the past three months. Cox specifically refers to the work-from-home trend a justification for network QoS, but degrading the performance of an entire neighborhood’s internet to punish the usage of no more than a handful of individuals without communicating any standard of acceptable usage is unacceptable.
Furthermore, without some sort of community monitoring tool, there’s no way for a neighborhood to know how large it is, which houses are part of it, or who its own heaviest users are. This smacks of arbitrary heavy-handedness, and Cox needs to clarify its own policies and practices around this type of throttling.
Feature image by Mike Mozart, Flickr, CC BY 2.0