Excite@Home speed caps draw fire, prompt new plans

Users complain about the Net-over-cable company's new upload bandwidth cap, saying they are not getting the same service they were promised, as the company considers a faster service for a premium.

4 min read
Many Excite@Home users continue to complain about the Net-over-cable company's new upload bandwidth cap, saying they are not getting the same service they were promised.

The complaints come as executives consider offering a premium version of the service, which would allow for faster data upload speeds and alleviate some users' concerns about upstream performance.

Several users have emailed CNET News.com in recent weeks with concerns about Excite@Home's OnAdvantage program, which limits users' upstream speeds to 128 kbps (kilobits per second). Some believe the company is taking away the level of service they have come to expect and pay for. "We also didn't get a reduction in the cost of the service," wrote one user in an email.

The upload, or upstream limits, affect only the rate at which data, such as an email, is sent out from the user to its destination. The new cap does not affect how fast users can surf the Internet or download files.

Excite@Home is in the process of capping upload speeds on a city-by-city basis as a way to prevent abusers from unfairly dominating the service, according to company executives. The OnAdvantage upload caps have been imposed in some cities since January, according to Excite@Home.

Separately, the company is exploring whether there is enough demand to support a second, higher-cost tier of the consumer service, a spokesman said.

Because cable television and cable-based Internet systems are shared networks, many users in a neighborhood split a certain amount of bandwidth. As a result, some cable modem users have complained that their high-speed service slows to a crawl during peak hours when many other consumers are simultaneously online.

The new upstream limits are intended to provide a more consistent level of service for all users, according to the company and analysts.

"OnAdvantage is proceeding fine and for the most part it's a non-issue," Dean Gilbert, senior vice president and general manager of the @Home consumer Internet service, said in a recent interview.

"The people it's impacting primarily are people that are running servers from their homes, which are not permitted," he said. "It's people that are fundamentally using the network in a way it was not designed to be used in a residential type of scenario."

The OnAdvantage program has improved service for 99 percent of Excite@Home's users, Gilbert said. Company executives and some analysts said the number of complainers is small, and primarily limited to a vocal bunch of early adopters with overly high expectations.

A good value?
Analysts said Excite@Home users get a lot of bandwidth for the price.

Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies, a broadband market research firm, said that users are getting "a screaming deal" for $40. Comparable dedicated connections such as a T1 line, an Internet access line popular with business customers, can cost more than $1,000 per month.

"If the reality is that you're expecting to get a T1, it's $40 a month. Get serious," said Glenn Powers, an analyst at Cruttenden Roth.

Powers said that if a user decided, for example, to run a full-time streaming video Web camera, "you're going to have one person spoil the economics for everyone."

"The economics of a shared network just don't support that and probably won't support that at that price point for years," he said.

Analysts said some users want to use the service, which is intended for consumer entertainment, in place of an expensive, high-end dedicated connection--something cable modem systems are not.

"Do you want to share it with your neighbors and share nicely, or do you want to just pay for the whole damn thing? That's what it comes down to," Powers said.

Analysts said Excite@Home could have done a better job informing users of the upload caps, but that the company probably did not wish to alarm the majority of its customers.

"The only real complaint I have is that Excite@Home didn't roll out a premium offering at the same time," Harris said. "If I'm a power user, then give me the opportunity to choose another service option ? If folks are willing to pay more, why not take the incremental revenue?"

Different speeds, different prices
The company has considered a premium service for months, but has yet to offer more than one version of its growing residential Internet service. A proposed upgrade tier reportedly will be called @Home Professional, although Excite@Home spokesman Matt Wolfrom said nothing is imminent and that no name, pricing, or deployment timeline has been set.

"We're considering implementing a tiered service with enhanced upstream availability of 256 kbps or higher," Wolfrom said. "We want to be prepared for the demand for a middle tier," he said.

Analysts said Excite@Home executives have talked about offering a tiered service for more than a year, but have yet to unveil a specific plan. "In a way they already have a tiered service; It's called @Work," Powers quipped.

But Wolfrom said that if the company offered a new tier, it would offer speed guarantees exceeding those on the consumer service, but slower than those offered by the company's @Work business division.

Widespread deployment of Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS)-compliant cable modem equipment is expected to make controlling bandwidth limits easier, analysts said.

"If [Excite@Home is] going to do it, I'd expect some initial rollouts by the end of the year," Kinetic's Harris said.