Cox Communications is lowering Internet upload speeds in entire neighborhoods to stop what it considers “excessive usage,” in a decision that punishes both heavy Internet users and their neighbors.
Cox, a cable company with about 5.2 million broadband customers in the United States, has been sending notices to some heavy Internet users warning them to use less data and notifying them of neighborhood-wide speed decreases. In the case we will describe in this article, a gigabit customer who was paying $50 extra per month for unlimited data was flagged by Cox because he was using 8TB to 12TB a month.
Cox responded by lowering the upload speeds on the gigabit-download plan from 35Mbps to 10Mbps for the customer’s whole neighborhood. Cox confirmed to Ars that it has imposed neighborhood-wide slowdowns in multiple neighborhoods in cases like this one but didn’t say how many excessive users are enough to trigger a speed decrease.
Mike, a Cox customer from Gainesville, Florida, pays $150 a month, including $100 for 1Gbps download speeds and 35Mbps upload speeds, and another $50 for “unlimited data” so that he can go over Cox’s 1TB data cap. Mike told Ars via email that most of his 8TB+ monthly use consists of scheduled device backups and “data sharing via various (encrypted) information-sharing protocols,” such as peer-to-peer networks, between 1am and 8am. (We agreed to publish Mike’s first name only but reviewed his bills and confirmed the basic details of his account with Cox.)
Generally speaking, data usage for most households declines significantly during those 1am-8am overnight hours, so a robustly built broadband network should be able to handle the traffic. In any case, Mike couldn’t use more than 35Mbps for uploads at any given time because that’s the limit Cox always imposed on its gigabit-download cable plan. Mike said his household’s daytime and evening use is more like a typical Internet user’s, with work-from-home activities during the day and streaming video in high-definition during the evening.
Mike also said his level of Internet usage has been roughly the same for the past four years that he’s been using Cox—but it was only in mid-May that the company flagged him for excessive use. This may suggest that Cox is struggling to handle pandemic-level broadband traffic, but Cox says that the vast majority of its network is “performing very well.”
Cox provided a little more detail after this story published, saying that the neighborhood-wide slowdowns and disconnection threats sent to individual customers “are two separate initiatives that could cross over in some cases.”
(Clarification: Mike’s nightly uploads alone couldn’t have accounted for more than half of his monthly 8TB+ usage if his upload speeds were capped at 35Mbps; seven hours of nightly uploads at that rate would amount to about 3.3TB per month. The nightly uploads may have accounted for most of his upload usage, however, as his monthly usage of 8TB to 12TB includes both downloads and uploads. Assuming Mike was also downloading heavily during those 1-8am hours, then the overnight usage including both downloads and uploads would account for most of his overall data usage.)
“Scheduled for termination”
First, Mike got three calls from Cox including one that left a voicemail saying, “we need to speak with you regarding your Internet usage. Your home is using an extraordinarily high amount of Internet data and adjustments need to be made immediately.” The voicemail warned that your “Internet will be scheduled for termination” unless usage reductions are “made within five days,” according to Mike.
Mike explained how he responded:
Since I work from home, I naturally was very concerned they would pull the plug on me and I’d be unable to work. Immediately calling the number [provided in the voicemail], I was funneled directly to a department for “questions about your recent Internet speed changes,” and spoke with a representative there. He went on to explain that their network is overburdened and since I was an above-average user, I was being targeted to lower my usage or else have my account terminated… I tried to explain that my usage is not out of the ordinary for me. My day-time bandwidth usage is paltry (most of my bandwidth consumption is scheduled from 1am-8am), and that Cox should have been upgrading their infrastructure instead of oversubscribing nodes and pocketing the record revenue. I was told if I did not make a substantial decrease in my upload data usage, my service would be terminated.
Comments in a Reddit thread last month confirm that Mike isn’t the only Cox customer being warned to cut upload speeds in order to avoid being kicked off the network. Cox didn’t tell Mike exactly how much data he’d have to shave off his monthly usage. There was “no magic number or threshold, just an arbitrary amount of decrease, a Cox-deemed ‘good effort,'” or his service would be cut off, he said.
Shortly after that phone call, Mike received an email from Cox with the subject line, “Alert: Action required to continue your Internet service.” Mike provided Ars with a copy of the email.
“We’ve recently tried getting in touch with you about your service—your account has been identified as using an extremely high level of bandwidth, which is causing a negative impact on our network and our other customers across your neighborhood,” the email said. Mike’s “extraordinarily high” upload usage “is negatively impacting Internet service of other customers, which is a violation of our Acceptable Use Policy, the email said. The policy contains a broad prohibition on transmitting amounts of data large enough to disrupt the network, but it doesn’t specify an amount.
The real kicker is that Cox’s email to Mike said that everyone in his neighborhood will get lower upload speeds until July 15:
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.
Cox’s email doesn’t specifically state that Mike’s usage spurred the decision to impose a neighborhood-wide slowdown, but this is apparently only happening in a small percentage of neighborhoods where Cox has seen heavier use than elsewhere in its network.
Questions for Cox
This raises several questions that we asked Cox. We asked the cable company why its network is “unable to handle Mike’s uploads in the middle of the night” and whether it has “considered adding capacity to its network instead of forcing unlimited-data customers to use less data.” We asked Cox how much data, specifically, customers who pay for unlimited data are actually allowed to use, and “Why isn’t Mike allowed to use unlimited data when he is paying for the highest speeds and paying extra for unlimited data?”
We also asked why Cox is imposing slowdowns throughout entire neighborhoods instead of only on the people allegedly violating the Acceptable Use Policy and whether the slowdowns are imposed even when only a single customer in a neighborhood is flagged for excessive usage. We also asked how many people in Mike’s neighborhood are affected by the upload-speed decrease and whether they will get discounts to reflect their reduced service.
Cox didn’t provide as much detail as we were looking for, but it confirmed the neighborhood-wide speed decreases, saying it has “identified a small number of neighborhoods where performance can be improved for all customers in the neighborhood by temporarily increasing or maintaining download speeds and changing upload speeds for some of our service tiers.”
Cox defended the temporary 10Mbps upload speed for its gigabit-download plan, saying that “10Mbps is plenty of speed for the vast majority of customers to continue their regular activity and have a positive experience.” Of course, customers paying extra for Cox’s fastest plan and unlimited data are more likely to be outliers who do need high upstream bandwidth. Unlike fiber-to-the-home service, in which ISPs offer symmetrical upstream and downstream speeds, cable service generally has much lower uploads than downloads. Cox offers symmetrical gigabit speeds in some areas where it has deployed fiber directly to homes but provides slower upload speeds on its cable network. Cable users may eventually get symmetrical upload and download speeds from an upgrade to DOCSIS, the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification.
A Cox webpage that was updated on April 30 says that the gigabit plan’s upload speeds are now “10Mbps in limited areas to support consistent service across customers during periods of sustained increased Internet usage.”
The now-repealed net neutrality rules likely wouldn’t have prevented this kind of data slowdown, as the slowdown would presumably fall under an exception for “reasonable network management.” But the Obama-era system in which ISPs were regulated as common carriers gave more rights to consumers to complain about unreasonable rates and practices, perhaps giving extra impetus to ISPs to upgrade their networks instead of limiting their users. Cox is a private company and thus doesn’t report network-upgrade spending publicly, but major ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T, and Charter have reduced network spending since the FCC repealed its net neutrality rules and common-carrier regulation. (Update: Harold Feld, senior VP of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge, says that “Cox’s going after unspecified ‘excess uploaders’ would probably have violated the enhanced disclosure rules under the 2015 net neutrality order.”)
Cox told Ars that it “will continue to work with anyone who is violating our Acceptable Use Policy with excessive use to help ensure everyone can have a positive Internet experience.”
Cox says network “performing very well”
Cox told Ars its “network is performing very well overall” during the pandemic, and that out of 28,000 neighborhood nodes across the US, 98 to 99 percent “are performing with adequate capacity even with the tremendous level of increased peak usage.” If Cox’s 5.2 million paying broadband customers are spread equally across nodes, each node would serve about 185 households.
Cox said that it always “keep[s] a close eye at the individual node level to make sure we don’t approach any congestion thresholds and need to make any adjustments. Similar to our normal process, if we see the network reach or exceed utilization thresholds we will accelerate network upgrade plans in the impacted areas. This could include splitting nodes, pulling additional fiber, equipment swaps and/or core network changes, all of which add capacity to the area.”
But those measures apparently aren’t enough to handle users like Mike, Cox said:
In some instances a number of excessive users, like the customer you referenced, are causing congestion problems in a small number of neighborhoods by utilizing over 100-200 times more upstream bandwidth than the average household. This type of excessive usage is negatively impacting the service of other customers, which is a violation of our Acceptable Use Policy. It is not our desire to terminate anyone’s service, but we may need to address excessive usage out of fairness to the rest of our customers, especially during this time when households are even more dependent on a good Internet experience…
In the case of the customer you mentioned, we have communicated with him about our concerns and it appears he has made adjustments to his usage to operate within our Acceptable Use Policy.
Mike confirmed to Ars that he has lowered his use by limiting overnight upload speeds to 400kbps, “so that it is always throttled.” His usage in the 2.5 weeks since May 22 is 2.1TB, putting him well below his usual monthly pace.
Pandemic spurs extra broadband use
Broadband networks have mostly held up well during the pandemic. Cable-lobby group NCTA, which represents Cox and other cable companies, says that “networks are engineered to provide superior performance throughout the day” and that “provider-backbone networks have significant capacity and show no signs of congestion.” Since March 1, NCTA says that peak upstream traffic has risen 26.2 percent and peak download traffic has risen 9.1 percent.
Cox told us that “a small percentage of nodes… were approaching congestion levels prior to” the pandemic, and that “the dramatically increased use in those neighborhoods has pushed [them] beyond the threshold where performance will be impacted. These speed adjustments are temporary while we try to keep as many people as possible connected during the crisis.”
Mike said he suspects Cox is limiting upload speeds “because their network can’t handle the increase of residential live video conference streaming” that has happened during the pandemic. Recently, Mike said he has been seeing upload speeds of only 4Mbps to 5Mbps.
Coming soon: A price increase
Mike’s bill is currently lower than usual because Cox, like other ISPs, is providing unlimited data to all customers during the pandemic. The waiver of the $50 monthly unlimited-data charge temporarily knocked his bill down to $100, and Cox provided a further $20 discount on his latest bill. Mike’s bill doesn’t explain the reason for the $20 credit, but it could be because of the new upload data limit.
But Cox is already signaling that Mike is in for a price increase in the near future. Today, Mike told Ars that “I just got an alert after logging in that my one-year introduction rate is now over, so I’ll be paying $175 a month for ‘unlimited’ data once the current data-overage exceptions expire. Yay.”
This article was updated after publication with additional responses from Cox.