An alternate title for this post would also be, How the Cable Companies Punish You For Cutting the Cord. A few years ago my wife and I said goodbye to our DirectTv service and began relying on the internet services Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime for our TV habit. For the most part this has been a great success. We also purchased an unobtrusive indoor antenna, living as we do only 25 miles from Phoenix, over the air (OTA) is a viable option. Our Cox Communications provided internet was speedy enough to enable excellent streaming of our most watched TV shows and movies.
That was until our data cap reared its ugly head. The internet is full of arguments for and against data caps. As for myself, I have yet found an argument supported on a technical basis that data caps alleviate network congestion, their intended use. At best data caps are useful means to keep internet pirates from leaving their bit-torrent streams going 24/7 and at worst case just another revenue stream for the cable company. The latter came to fruition after the first couple of almost polite emails from Cox arrived telling us we had exceeded our plan’s data cap. We decided to move to a more expensive plan. We didn’t need the speed as much as the extra chunk of data.
My wife and I are not heavy bit-torrent users. We have used it to download an occasional movie or show not available via streaming, but most of our internet use comes from watching our favorite shows in Netflix. Our usage reflects that. Our upload use is very low compared to download, this was confirmed by a representative from Cox. A heavy bit-torrenter would have similar usage for both down and upload, while ours shows a heaver download usage indicating the use of streaming services. The curious part came when we asked some of our friends who were also heavy Netflix users if they get the same warnings. We found friends with similar habits but who kept Cox TV service never hit their data cap.
Things really became interesting when we contacted Cox. Before getting into that I should mention we subscribe to the second from the top service, Internet Premier, it features a 300 GB data limit and speed up to 100 mbps. Broadband speed is always a relative term and you are only promised a maximum possible speed that goes beyond what you typically will see. In this case our plan calls for downloads up to 100 mbs. After running some speed tests the best we could manage was 22 mbs. Many things effect broadband speed that are both out of the cable company’s and our control so speed figures should always be taken with a grain of salt. You can imagine our surprise when we spoke with a Cox sales rep who told us that something was wrong and they would be sending a technician out because their advertised rate is the rate we should be getting. We chuckled but said, “oh really.” Perhaps there was something wrong at the street or maybe even in our house. It was worth a shot. In addition they also gave us a discount for the next year on our service because we had not been receiving the posted speeds. It was a nice touch and gave us some hope.
The technician arrived at our home on time, and on Labor Day no less. It was a short visit. He began by telling us he looked at our history and noticed we had gone over our data cap a few times. Then in a tone that both my wife and I picked up on as accusatory told us to contact Cox because we obviously were being throttled. This was an unexpected revelation. The Cox website boldly states, “Cox does not throttle speeds.” We had asked about throttling over our previous two phone conversations with Cox representatives who both said that Cox does not throttle their customers yet in our living room was a Cox technician telling us that, you guessed it, we’ve been throttled. There was nothing that he could find wrong with our connections and our modem and routers were all current technology. So he left urging us to find out who we need to talk to at Cox to get throttled.
Will we? Probably not. The issue isn’t so much about going over an arbitrary line chosen by the cable company but it is about what happens when the same company offers two competing services, Internet and TV. They love bundling them together, as you can see from the ads. This starts out cheap but becomes very expensive. As you might expect the data used by Cox’s own services does not count against their data cap. Why would they crap where they eat, I guess?
We have since turned down our Netflix stream to a more conservative quality. The top Netflix stream will consume up to 7 GB of data an hour. At a data limit of 300 GB per month that stream will chew through that in just under 43 hours or about an hour and a half of TV a day in any given month. Now we were told by Cox representatives that if we had their TV service we would be watching more TV and not streaming as much so naturally the data cap would not be an issue, but we don’t want their TV service. Turning down the quality of Netflix results in a much smaller stream closer to .7 GB and hour. That 300 GB limit then allows for 429 hours of TV or just over 14 hours a day. That is a lot of TV watching but we still had to make the concession of accepting a lower quality picture. Such is life in this modern age I guess, instead of not being able to fight city hall the new adage should be you can’t fight corporate monopolies.