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Comcast gives broadband users a speed boost

New feature allows users to get turbocharged downloads whenever excess capacity is available on the network.

Comcast, the largest cable provider in the U.S., will give customers of its broadband service a free boost on downloads.

The company confirmed Thursday that customers in New England are already using the new feature, which doubles download speeds for subscribers when extra capacity is available on the network

Called PowerBoost, the new feature is available free to customers who already subscribe to the company's 6mbps and 8mbps services. It will be deployed throughout the rest of Comcast's region later this year and, when available, increase speeds to 12Mbps and 16Mbps.

A Comcast official said the company is not boosting speeds for particular applications or content, a situation that would likely get Comcast into hot water with Net neutrality proponents, who want network operators to provide the same level of service to all content providers on the Net. Instead it's supercharging speeds for all customers downloading any content--whether it's music, e-mail, pictures or movies--when the network is not being used at maximum capacity.

"The Comcast network is really content-agnostic," said company spokeswoman Jeanne Russo. "We hope the PowerBoost feature will provide a competitive advantage for us with customers who are interested in doing a lot with their broadband connections."

Customers may not even notice the bandwidth boost if they're downloading smaller files such as text-based e-mails or simple Web pages with few graphics. But if they're downloading detailed pictures and videos, they'll likely see a big increase in speed, Russo said.

How is Comcast able to do this? Like most broadband service providers, Comcast has designed its network to guarantee speeds when usage levels are at their peak. Because the network is rarely maxed out, Comcast usually has excess capacity. PowerBoost allows Comcast customers to take advantage of the extra bandwidth when it's available. But when it's not, the networks still provides the lower guaranteed rates.

Unfortunately for customers who frequently upload pictures and videos, Comcast's bandwidth boost applies only to downloads. This may frustrate some consumers who say they are happy with the speed of their download service but would like to see faster uploads.

"Right now our customers say our current upstream speeds meet their needs," Russo said. "But we'll continue to monitor what our customers want, and PowerBoost for uploads could be something we offer later."

Cable operators and telephone companies have been ratcheting up download speeds of their services for the past few years. Comcast has increased the speed of its service four times in the past three years without any price increase to customers. And while upload speeds have increased incrementally as well, they haven't caught up to download speeds.

Cox Communications also said that it plans to give customers a taste of faster-speed services, using technology from a company called Camiant. The policy server product from Camiant allows Cox to temporarily increase bandwidth speeds on the fly for consumers interested in testing out the higher-speed service.

Cox has previously offered speed previews but couldn't provide speed increases to individual customers. Instead, it offered special speed increases to entire regions of its service area.