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more on the Comcast 250 GB/mo. problem

     Last week I found a voice mail message from a phone number I didn't
recognize, who claimed to be from the "Comcast Security Assurance Division",
demanding that I call them at yet another number I didn't recognize.  I called
the normal number to reach Comcast, explained what had happened, and gave that
person the phone numbers.  I was told then that those did not appear to be
Comcast phone numbers and that they had never heard of such a department or
division in Comcast.  I asked whether I should report the incident to the
police.  They said that would be a good idea, so I did report it to the local
police, stating that I suspected a possible phone scam aimed at identity theft.
     The next day (Fri.) I received another call, which I answered before
noticing that the number was the one that had called a day earlier.  The caller
made the same claim as the day before, to which I replied that I didn't believe
them, that I had already reported their number to both Comcast and the local
police department.  I then ended the call and called Comcast again to let them
know what was going on.  That conversation lasted quite a while, during which
time my call got transferred to their tech. support area.  The lady in tech.
support did some investigation and found that the phone numbers in question
were, in fact, Comcast numbers and that the "Security Assurance Division" was
legitimate after all.  She had never heard of them before, but connected me
into a conference call with someone at the number I had been told to call.
     The upshot was that I was being contacted because their system claimed
that in February my setup had transmitted and/or received more than 250 GB,
an arbitrary limit that exceeding a second time would get my connection shut
off for a minimum of 12 months.  They claimed that my combined transmissions
and receptions had totaled between 661 GB and 662 GB for February, a number
I still do not accept.
     Further, Comcast sales staff and tech. support staff were unaware of any
such limit, much less of specifically 250 GB.  That means that when I was
signed up last August for a reception rate limit of 6 Mb/s (~600 KB/s) and a
transmission rate limit of 768 Kb/s (~76 KB/s), they didn't inform me that
actual usage of those rates would use up a fixed, 250 GB, monthly allotment of
data in less than 4.5 days.  A month or a bit more ago, Comcast finished
upgrading its infrastructure and cable system software, which led to their
increasing the data rates, so that my connection can now run at 12 Mb/s
(~1.2 MB/s) for reception and 1 Mb/s (~100 KB/s) for transmission.  If used
at capacity, these rates can exhaust the monthly data ration in a little over
2 days and 6 hours.  I believe this constitutes deceptive marketing and
possibly even fraud under U.S. law.
     At present I don't have an alternate ISP on tap to replace Comcast, but
I am looking.  Meanwhile I asked how much of the current month's allotment had
already been used (according to their very questionable system) and was told
that they were unable to tell me that.  They said that they deal only with
exception notices issued when someone exceeds 250 GB transferred in a billing
month.  They suggested taking the 662 GB figure, dividing that by 28 days for
February, multiplying by the first 6 days of March, subtracting that from the
March ration of 250 GB, in order to get an estimate of what might fairly
safely be considered to remain for use in March.
     On the basis of the result, I immediately slammed the brakes on tor,
setting BandwidthRate and BandwidthBurst both to 20 KB.  The results over the
next few hours were not pretty, but it is still running.  I have no way of
knowing, however, whether this will really prevent my total usage for March
from exceeding the 250 GB combined in+out limit.  In other words, by refusing
to provide any further feedback short of cutting the connection, they aim to
intimidate me into using much less than the measly 2.28 days' worth of full
use that they think should be spread over an entire month of up to 31 days.
If I make it to 1 April without getting shut off, I should be able to change
the settings to BandwidthRate 35 KB and BandwidthBurst 70 KB, but that is
still about 10% of how it was running before.
     Now, in actual fact, most of my network usage over a month's time is due
to running a tor relay.  That relay was also operating as a tor directory
mirror, which consumed a fair portion of the limited output data rate.  The
remaining portion of the output data rate could be used for relay operations,
and the input rate would roughly parallel the portion of the output rate used
for the relay operations.  That means that the 250 GB would actually be spread
over more days, but remains only a fraction of the data that I ought to be
able to send and receive in a month's time.
     I have since called Comcast again and had them reduce the service level
to the minimum data rates they offer because even those rates if used flat out,
would exhaust the monthly ration well before the middle of the month.  That
means I have to restrict tor's data rates to well under the Comcast minimum
in order to keep the relay in operation throughout the month.  (Continuous
operation seems preferable to me than alternating into and out of hibernation.)
     Aside from writing letters of complaint to the FCC regarding Comcast's
deceptive marketing practices, I am at a loss to know how to "civilize"
Comcast.  In this local area, I think Verizon is the only other broadband ISP
available.  (I refuse to count the worthless excuse for an "ISP" I dumped last
year.)  Verizon only offers ADSL service here; all of its fiber optics support
is elsewhere still.  Unfortunately, the ISP I dumped last year uses some of
the Verizon hardware in this area to provide its services.  Given the terrible
problems I had with TBC last year, I'm reluctant to risk having to use what
may well be the defective part of the same hardware setup.
     Meanwhile my relay has fallen from the top 15% or so of relays by capacity
to just about rock bottom. :-(  I know others have posted their complaints
about this situation here on the list, but I don't remember anyone mentioning
that most Comcast employees that customers will ever talk with over the phone
appear to be unaware of the existence of either the 250 GB/mo. limit or the
"Security Assurance Division" of Comcast.  I also don't remember anyone
mentioning that the 250 GB limit includes all data in both directions over the
customer's connection.  If you are a Comcast residential subscriber running a
tor relay, it might be a good idea to set BandwidthRate to a value of 48 KB/s
or less because that limit means 48 KB/s in plus 48 KB/s out, which would come
to approximately 250 GB over the number of seconds in a 31-day month.
     The "Security Assurance" guy mentioned that soon Comcast would be offering
a 99 Mb/s reception rate.  (He didn't say what the transmit rate limit would
be at that point.)  He said that, as far as he knew, the 250 GB limit would
still apply.  I said that Comcast would probably have a lot of irate customers
once they discovered the hard way that their entire month's data allotment
could, in principle, be consumed in just 42 - 43 minutes.  He disagreed, saying
that people currently exceeding 250 GB in a month were less that 0.1% of all
Comcast residential subscribers.  We shall see, I guess.
     The only suggestion from any of the Comcast employees on how I might get
around a 250 GB/mo. limit was that switching to Comcast Business-class service
might do it, but they didn't know for sure because they only dealt with
residential service.  At this point, I don't know whether I could believe their
business-class service sales staff on this issue, now that I've been misled by
their residential-class sales staff through its ignorance on the matter.  OTOH,
the choices around here are distressingly poor.

                                  Scott Bennett, Comm. ASMELG, CFIAG
* Internet:       bennett at cs.niu.edu                              *
* "A well regulated and disciplined militia, is at all times a good  *
* objection to the introduction of that bane of all free governments *
* -- a standing army."                                               *
*    -- Gov. John Hancock, New York Journal, 28 January 1790         *