A note to Comcast from a tiny minority

Not long after I overheard a Comcast ad on a college football broadcast, the doorbell rang. It was a guy wearing a Comcast shirt and carrying a clipboard-type contraption with some kind of a phone-like keyboard at one end. Under the clip was a list of channels. We greeted each other, and he asked me if we had cable. I said no, we just had Internet service.

“Oh, from RCN?”

“No, Verizon FiOS.”

“Oh. Just Internet?”

“That’s it.”

“No telephone?”

“We dropped it along with the television. We only use the Net.”

“Just Internet?”

“Just Internet.”

“What kind of speed are you getting?”

“We have 20Mb symmetrical service. Twenty up, twenty down.”

“We can beat that.”


“We have fifty.”

“Fifty up and down?”

“Fifty. It’s expensive, though.”

“How much?”

“Seventy a month.”

“That’s not bad, if it’s symmetrical. What’s the upstream speed?”


“You sure? If you can tell me twenty up, we might have a deal.”

He wasn’t sure. “Hang on. Let me make a call.”

A conversation with somebody at Comcast followed. “Oh,” he said to the phone. “Okay… okay.” After hanging up, he said, “It’s fifty down and ten up.”

“Can’t do twenty, huh?”

He started to walk down the stairs in front of the house. “Only a tiny minority wants that,” he said.

“That might be the case nationwide,” I replied. “But around here with all these universities and businesses, you’ll get more demand. You might have sold me if you could have beaten Verizon’s offer.”

He shook his head. “It’s just a tiny minority.” And then he walked down the sidewalk, toward the next doorbell.

Bonus link.


  1. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    The fact that anyone is even asking for better up speed should be a sign more is needed. Most people are clueless about the up but if it has risen to the level of even a ‘tiny minority’ you would think there was a business there.

  2. Benjamin Straw’s avatar

    I wish I could get a better Internet service provider like Verizon FiOS, it would make life a lot happier with out Comcast’s BS.. Like the 404 DNS redirect that… no one wants, Technicians that are contractors for your company that don’t do anything and blames the customer for the problem, Service that works 99.9% of the time, Tech’s and their managers that don’t lie to you over the phone and at for face, Tech’s that don’t show up and when they do they are late or really early.. like 7am on a Saturday, and 4 months of time and headaches wasted trying to get the service to work after Comcast upgrades your service, but some how only works when the tech’s are at your home. COMCAST FAIL
    BTW this is a rant and I still want Verizon FiOS

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Yep. The above is from a longer conversation in which I said that, basically. The guy was selling TV, though.

    Inconvenient fact: the best looking pictures you’ll get on your new 1080p flat screen come from your 1080p camcorder. They’re compressed, but not nearly as much as streams from cable and satellite.

    Wait until ordinary folks start wanting to move more hi-def video around. Then that tiny minority will get a lot bigger, fast.

  4. Flip’s avatar

    Here in the San Francisco bay area, I only get 2Mbs up.

    On a good day, maybe 10Mbs down, but most of the time only 4Mbs down.

  5. Richard Bennett’s avatar

    So here’s the deal: you can have a symmetrical pipe, or you can have an unmanaged pipe, but you can’t have both. Why? Because that’s the way the Internet is designed.

    Between your house to the nearest Internet Exchange Point, your ISP (any ISP, doesn’t matter who it is) aggregates a set of lower-speed pipes onto higher-speed pipes, multiple times; looking at it from the other direction, it disaggregates fat pipes onto narrow pipes multiple times.

    If all the pipes are symmetrical but pipes get fatter further from your home, you will have congestion events on the downstream side but not so much on the upstream side. Users do more downstream than upstream, so ISPs provide more b/w on that side, reducing congestion, relieving the need for management, and reducing symmetry.

    So which would you rather have, a symmetrical pipe or a dumb pipe? You can’t have both, so you have to choose; it’s the aggregation, you see.

  6. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    I’m pretty sure that you don’t know what you’re talking about, Richard. None of what you say applies to a bunch of Ethernet-connected machines going into a switch or a router, so why should it apply when you leave the house? Are you possibly confused by the DOCIS need to asymmetric bandwidth?

  7. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    I’ll be in Hong Kong in two months. 100mb for $13 a month, and upto 1Gbps is available if I want it.


    Did I mention it’s fully symmetrical?

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Comcast, being a cable company, uses DOCSIS, by which data moves on frequency bands defined originally by television. The spec differs by version, but it the throughput is, by intent, asymmetrical. This owes not just to demand, but to the nature of the RF spectrum. Higher frequencies can carry more data. Many frequency bands are used, but the same ones cannot be used both upstream and down, so lower frequencies are typically devoted to slower upstream data service.

    Verizon’s FiOS, which moves data over lightpaths, also uses different frequencies in the light spectrum. These are also asymmetrical, offering 2.4Gbs down and 1.2Gbs up. What gets provisioned in practice is more complicated, but the service is asymmetrical to begin with.

    At the relatively low bandwidths that I operate at in my apartment here, it’s no trouble for Verizon to give me 20Mb symmetrical service. I suspect it would be possible for Verizon to give me much higher speeds in both directions as well, especially since we don’t use TV service at all here. I don’t know how high Comcast is able or willing to go in either direction, but I am sure that its offerings will be asymmetrical.

    Usage in general will always be asymmetrical, for such is the nature of personal production and consumption.

    My point is about demand. We have competition here. Three brands of fiber run on poles outside our house. We use Verizon’s FiOS because it best matches our demand. The nature of my demand, especially for off-site backup (using BackBlaze) and for uploading full-size photos to Flickr (over 32,000 so far) is not unique, nor does it belong to a “tiny minority.” The Boston metro is thick with professionals and students working in science and higher education, many with legitimate needs for high speed Internet speeds. They are used to those speeds at work, and they might like it at home too — provided it’s available. (At Harvard I’ve measured service at 100Mb in both directions over Ethernet. Same with UCSB.)

    The market is there. All the carriers, however, tend to think in national rather than regional or local terms. They also do a lousy job of promoting their Internet offerings. In my case I found out about FiOS’ symmetrical offering from a Verizon employee following one of my blog posts.

    Years ago in Santa Barbara a Cox cable guy told me there was no demand for higher upstream speeds because they measured demand and it wasn’t there. When I asked him how they could measure demand for what they neither allowed nor promoted, he had no answer. Last I checked Cox was busy moving toward DOCSIS 3.0 — I’m told so they can stay ahead of Verizon’s likely deployment of LTE wireless rather than FiOS there. Competition works.

    What clearly happened at my house was that somebody at Comcast’s local office told the salesman at my door to move on, because I was from a “tiny minority.” That the salesman laid that label on me said less about his manners than about Comcast deafness to any form of demand other than what they currently support.

    So Comcast lost a sale.

    But there is far more to sell than what they offer, especially as personal video going both directions will become a growing form of service demand. There are lots of service offerings from ISPs — in addition to fatter bandwidth — that can address that demand. The winning ISPs will find ways to service that demand. So far, Verizon is winning — at least here in my house, on my street, in Massachusetts.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Andrew, can you check the actual speeds (and restrictions) while you’re there? Curious about comparing promotion with reality.

  10. Michael R. Bernstein’s avatar

    Here in Albuquerque, there is a company offering 100/150Mb symmetrical FTTH service for $80-100/month:


    Unfortunately, it is not available across the whole city (but their coverage is expanding):


  11. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Lobbyists for regulation of the Internet claim that we MUST have onerous, overly prescriptive regulation because there’s no competition. But Doc’s account demonstrates that there is, indeed, competition, and that different people will choose different competitive offerings depending upon their needs.

    Most home users don’t need blazing upstream speeds, so Comcast’s service will likely be attractive to a lot of people even though it wasn’t to Doc — who truly is part of a tiny minority. (I’m an Internet power user, and I don’t need 20 Mbps upstream.)

    So, why regulate? It’s clear that that competition is working.

  12. Andrew Leyden’s avatar


    It will be a few months but I will send you an email about speeds when I get there. They guarantee 80% of the speed at all times, but only when using local sites (ha!)

    Still, I plan on running several IPTV services from the UK and US while there so I will be testing it quite a bit.

  13. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brett, two things.

    One is that I might be a member of a tiny minority now, but this will end. Greater upstream speeds will be required, especially as more of us traffic in video of our own creation.

    The other is that competition works where it’s available. I’m no fan of government regulation either; but I would favor the kind that open up more available bandwidth from more sources in more places. (Not that this is a current regulatory agenda, by the way.)

  14. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    Doc, what’s keeping $FOO from running fiber all around Cambridge? Well, for one, the poles are privately owned. Okay, so put up your own poles. Oops, the government won’t let you do that. Well, then bury it. Nope, you need a license to do that. Well, then just string it from building to building. That’s fine until you want to cross a road. Again, gotta ask the government.

    The incumbents didn’t have to cross all those barriers to entry. Hell, their practices were responsible for some of them being created. They were able to cross the barriers *after* having a proven business model.

    We need to be clear here: if there’s a natural monopoly in telecom, it’s only because the government created it.

  15. Trey Sensor’s avatar

    Not sure why someone would need 100mb for home use but if there is a need for it then Comcast or other internet service providers should make it affordable so people can get it.

  16. Michelle Murgi, Verizon FiOS’s avatar

    Agree with Andrew, “the fact that anyone is even asking for better up speed should be a sign more is needed”…

  17. Brett Glass’s avatar

    If one is “trafficking” in products that require high bandwidth to transmit, the best solution by far is to rent space in a server farm. Getting the same kind of capacity to every individual home, when most people don’t need it, can cost a lot of money and wouldn’t be a good investment for the carrier.

    As for competition: it exists even in very small towns like the one I live in, which has at least 10 facilities-based providers and dozens of non-facilities-based ones. But admittedly, there is one thing competition won’t do: carriers won’t compete to lose money on customers. Bandwidth is not free; spectrum isn’t free; fiber isn’t free; copper isn’t free. Competition will keep the price fair, but we will all still have to pay our freight.

  18. Richard Bennett’s avatar

    Sorry Russell, but I know exactly what I’m talking about.

    It doesn’t matter whether your first mile is symmetrical or not, the structure of the Internet does not support fully symmetrical usage end-to-end. In order to access the Internet – you know, that big, sprawling, world-wide network – you need to get to an Internet Exchange Point, and the endpoint you want to access has to get to one too. While there’s a mesh between well-connected IXPs, the connections between the edge of the first mile network and the IXP are a series of aggregation and disaggregation points. Aggregation is taking many lines down to one, and disaggregation is the reverse. Tell me how we do that with equal size pipes without creating congestion on the aggregated links or with unequal pipes without creating congestion on thr disaggregated links.

    Hint: over-provisioning is under-provisioning from another point of view.

  19. Richard Bennett’s avatar

    Hong Kong is a city of high-rise buildings where it’s cheap to pull fiber and easy to advertise ridiculous (local) speeds. Access to content outside HK is at the mercy of undersea cables, so all that bandwidth does for you is get you to the bottleneck faster. I’ve done ping and traceroute tests from Korea and found the same thing.

  20. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Richard, what kinds of speeds, latencies and other variables did you experience in Korea? Not a trick question, just curious.

    I also think it’s interesting (and consistent with your point) that some providers (e.g. Lafayette, Louisiana’s — I’d point to it, but it comes up with annoying music) offers “100 Mbps Peer‐to‐Peer Community Intranet,” and lower speeds otherwise: a difference between one local net and The Internet.

  21. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Russ, I agree that “government created it,” but they were not alone. We have had, in many categories, usually dominated by near-monopolies, what Bob Franskton calls “the regulatorium,” and others call “regulatory capture.” The result is all kinds of weirdness, ranging from more regulation based on failing capture, and captors of varying power complaining about more regulation of a “free market” that defies the term. I’m still trying to get my head around it all, and I probably never will.

    To me what that requires is calling attentions to ironies such as the one I posted above, and otherwise trying to listen with an open mind to everybody who clearly knows more than I do about lots of stuff, which includes everybody in this comment thread.

    FWIW, in Santa Barbara the poles are publicly owned, but I see no sign, in spite of strong efforts by locals (including myself), that fiber will ever be run even close to homes. So regulation still requires that all pole-based service to be “undergrounded” (their verbed noun) must be “buried” in a long concrete trench the depth of a grave, so copper phone and cable TV services maintain pole-standard distances from each other under the ground — when in a less complicated future world (like the ones being built, both privately and publicly, in other municipalities), a shallower trench for electrical service plus conduit for fiber, would make more sense.

    I actually don’t live in Cambridge, but in an adjacent town that decided, wisely, that the best solution was to let every competitor burden the poles with whatever they liked. The result is ugly poles and wiring and a relative paradise of fairly open market competition. The competitors could be a LOT more clueful, but the result is a predictable increase in choice over what a monopoly or duopoly would provide.

  22. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Doc, the reason Lafayette, LA can offer very high capacities inside their network but not to the Internet is that they pay $50 per Mbps per month for Internet backbone bandwidth. (You were at Isenberg’s conference when they quoted this number.) They can’t resell this bandwidth below cost! Unfortunately, unless the FCC is able to free itself of the diversion of unnecessary “network neutrality” regulation and focus on actual problems, such as price gouging on “special access” lines and the middle mile, this situation will persist.

  23. Richard Bennett’s avatar

    Pings and traceroutes within Korea are very fast, but between Korea and the rest of the world they’re pedestrian.

    Mr. Leyden fails to mention an interesting aspect of the Hong Kong service: the international speed is 20 Mb/s. There are services available in the US in comparably densely-populated areas that offer this much capacity for a similar price, once you take out the taxes, fees, USF contributions, eRate, and all the other burdens on the bill.

    So what can we learn from Asian broadband? There is an intense transnational rivalry between Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong to offer the highest speed broadband for the lowest price per month. The governments have stoked the rivalry by subsidizing fiber in the cities, where most people live in high-rise buildings. The highest speeds are reserved for local end-to-end connections (no hollow sphere) and their primary use is for low-latency gaming and high capacity P2P (mostly piracy and/or porn).

    From these examples and similar dynamics in Scandinavia, one can deduce that extremely high broadband speeds are enabled by population density and subsidy, but they’re mainly the result of national rivalries. The US is at a disadvantage, as we don’t really have a national rival. We don’t particularly care what they can do in Japan or Sweden or even Canada. And if the truth be known, bad weather and crappy TV programming probably creates more demand for very high speed broadband than most other factors.

    National telecoms regulators are aware of the fact that the rationale of very high speed broadband is entertainment, not productivity or free speech.

  24. coetsee’s avatar

    Its all about chasing shadows.
    By that I mean latching on to this or that latest, most innovative idea that some self styled money making guru has put out in the hope it’ll go viral and make them a lot of money off the backs of all the headless chickens who will follow them blindly down a blind alley. Its a shame but a truism nonetheless that people will follow where someone they see as an expert leads. Even if they lead them to certain disaster, which is what most of the gurus tend to do to their flocks.
    The trick is to recognize a shadow when you see it!


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