Major ISP Cox Communications has begun throttling the connections of entire neighborhoods for what the ISP deems "excessive usage." More specifically, the ISP has begun severely throttling the upstream connections of internet users who consume too much bandwidth for the ISP's liking, even if those users have paid the company extra for faster, unrestricted service.
Despite ISPs making it repeatedly clear that their networks are handling COVID-19 related strain very well, complaints about the new restrictions have been popping up at Reddit over the last month. While Cox confirmed to Ars Technica that it had started throttling the upstream speeds of entire neighborhoods, it wasn't willing to clarify how many neighborhoods are impacted and just how much data is deemed "excessive" by the cable giant:
"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."
Some users who are impacted say they already pay Cox $150 a month for a 1 Gbps down, 35 Mbps up (now 10 Mbps) connection -- and an additional $50 per month to avoid going over Cox's 1 terabyte monthly bandwidth cap (which triggers a $10 per additional 50 GB surcharge once surpassed). And they're still facing slowdowns:
"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."
Please keep in mind that as ISPs pushed for the net neutrality repeal (which demolished much of the FCC's authority over telecom), they claimed repeatedly that this would result in a massive surge in investment (that never happened, and at some ISPs, like AT&T, investment dropped). The idea that "regulatory freedom" would result in near-Utopian outcomes has been the mantra for several years, yet suddenly users who already pay an arm and a leg for bandwidth find themselves inexplicably throttled anyway? Without any transparency into "how much is too much?"
Telecom lawyer Harold Feld asked all the right questions on Twitter, noting that this certainly wasn't the deregulated Utopia US broadband consumers were promised:
Again, we heard more times than we could count that the net neutrality repeal and FCC lobotomy requested by telecom lobbyists would result in waves of investment and near magical outcomes. Yet here, instead of investing in the necessary upgrades to handle the added load, Cox is throttling the connections of entire neighborhoods that already pay an arm and a leg for bandwidth (Americans consistently pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world). Worse, they're doing so in a way that's entirely not transparent, and likely would have violated the transparency requirements in the FCC's net neutrality rules, had we not demolished them at lobbyist behest and in stark contrast to the will of the public.
Granted this is happening because, as we warned all along, mindlessly deregulating US telecom doesn't magically result in spurred investment and Utopia. In large part because when you eliminate regulatory oversight of a broken, monopolized market (without embracing reform or competitive policies), telecom giants always just double down on bad behavior. For ISPs that means higher prices, stifled investment, worse customer service, and more of the kind of non-transparent behaviors US consumers have complained about for decades.
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.
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.
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.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.
Net neutrality is widely regarded as the cornerstone of the internet’s success. By providing all services and users with an even playing field, innovation is encouraged, and dynamic startups are can thrive.
From the consumer point of view, net neutrality means that the content you want (and for which you pay bandwidth) is delivered to you at the same high speed, regardless of what that content is.
Unfortunately, in January this year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit effectively struck down net neutrality, and the FCC, whose job it is to defend neutrality, and in spite of a massive public outcry that has led to an unprecedented 3 million comments being left on its public consultation website (causing it to crash twice), rather oxymoronically seems determined to ‘save’ net neutrality by destroying it.
Given that the new head of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, worked for years as an industry lobbyist campaigning against net neutrality, this is as depressing as it is unsurprising.
In the meantime, the big telecoms companies have wasted no time tearing net neutrality up, the reasons for which are largely threefold:
They can now offer companies who can afford to pay for it faster access to their customers. While this brings in additional revenue for the ISPs, it means that smaller companies, startups, charities, and anyone who cannot afford to pay for the additional bandwidth will have putter along in the ‘slow lane’. The only winners here are large established businesses, who can use this uneven playing field to stifle their competition.
They can now offer customers cable-style bundled internet packages which provide customers access to only a limited number of channels (i.e. websites and internet services). To get unlimited access to the internet, customers will have to pay more. Needless to say, this has terrible social implications, but the process is already underway.
They can discriminate against services that compete with their own. The classic example of this is that both Comcast and Verizon (who both run internet streaming services), almost immediately following the Court ruling in January started to throttle Netflix traffic. Their excuse is that Netflix unfairly hogs their bandwidth so it only fair that it should pay for it, but surely customers are paying for the ISPs for that bandwidth precisely so they can stream services such as Netflix?
How VPN can help bypass ISP throttling
Using a VPN service connects your computer (including mobile devices) to a VPN provider’s servers using an encrypted tunnel. Because all data passing through this tunnel is protected by strong encryption, your ISP cannot know what users are doing on the internet, and therefore cannot prioritize or discriminate against specific services.
Just to demonstrate how effective this can be, in July Colin Nederkoorn, CEO of Customer.io, performed a series of tests in which using VPN improved his connection speeds when streaming Netflix over his Verizon connection tenfold!
Using a VPN therefore prevents bandwidth throttling of internet services, and will likely become a vital tool in the struggle to preserve net neutrality. However…
It is possible for ISPs to throttle / block VPN itself
Although all data passing through an encrypted VPN tunnel is hidden from an ISP, it can ‘see’ the tunnel itself, and can therefore choose to throttle or block all such traffic. Alternatively, it can simply throttle or block all traffic connected to known IP addresses belonging to VPN providers.
Throttling or blocking VPN traffic is very problematic, as businesses rely on VPN to secure internal communications, process payments, and for any number of routine purposes that are vital for them to operate, so banning VPN protocols would have a very negative impact on the economy.
This is a problem compounded by the fact that running OpenVPN (or SSTP) over TCP port 443 makes VPN traffic indistinguishable from the HTTPS traffic (https://), which uses the protocol on which almost all internet security relies.
VPN traffic is therefore only blocked in extremely restrictive countries such as China or Iran, but there is some evidence US companies may be throttling it. Fortunately, this can be easily bypassed by switching to tcp port 443, tampering with this would effectively break the internet.
Many providers’ custom VPN clients let you easily switch ports. To do this in the generic open source OpenVPN client, you can edit the relevant .ovpn config file in a text editor, and manually change the settings.
If you have problems, then your VPN provider should be able and happy to provide assistance.
Many VPN providers also offer ‘stealth’ servers, which use obfspoxy like technologies to mask the use of VPN traffic.
A bigger danger is that ISPs might throttle the internet for users connected to the known IP ranges of VPN providers. As a user, there is not much you can do about this apart from choose to use less well-known VPN providers, but the providers themselves can recycle their IP addresses, setup new proxy servers, and perform various other tricks to help combat this threat.
Throttling outside the United States
The recent collapse of net neutrality in the US, and in particular the closing of the FCC’s public consultation period (which was extended from July 15th to September 15th in order to handle the huge volume of comments it received), has focused world attention on the issue of throttling in America, and has made it an urgent priority for American netizens.
The rest of the world, however, is watching events in the US very closely, and ISPs everywhere are hoping it will set a precedent allowing them to charge differently for different levels of internet access and bandwidth.
The EU and Brazil have passed legislation aimed at guaranteeing net neutrality, but even here, the fact that a huge proportion of all internet traffic passes through the US (even when the US is neither its start point nor its destination) means that what happen in the States is likely to affect users elsewhere.
In all cases, as long as it is not itself throttled, VPN will help (and discussed above, even when it is throttled, options are available).
A note on BitTorrent throttling
Many ISPs, even in countries which uphold net neutrality, discriminate against BitTorrent traffic on the assumption that all such traffic involves illegal copyright infringement. To see whether your BitTorrent traffic is being throttled, check out this fantastic tool by Measurement Lab, which lets you see how much throttling of BitTorrent traffic is performed not only by country, but by ISP.
Again, using a VPN (which allows P2P) will bypass this throttling, while providing the additional benefits of hiding what you are downloading from your ISP, and by using an outwards facing proxy IP address, will ensure your downloads cannot be traced back to your real IP address. If you want to know more about using a VPN for torrent sites, take a look at our best VPNs for torrenting article.
Because VPN involves data travelling through an extra leg of the journey as it routes through the VPN servers, and because encrypting and decrypting data takes processing power, using VPN always comes with a speed hit, which can be as low as 10 percent, but can be much more.
The benefit of using VPN to evade throttling therefore depends on the speed hit resulting from using a VPN, put against the amount of throttling that is occurring. As demonstrated fairly spectacularly by Mr Nederkoorn and his 10 x faster Netflix speeds when using VPN however (as mentioned earlier), the benefits can still be considerable.