As those of you who came here through the main page of this site (Jenkins Online) already know, I recently switched from Comcast to Earthlink DSL for our broadband service. Earthlink’s service isn’t as fast as Comcast was in the download speeds, but it’s still plenty fast for our needs and will tide us over until Wide Open West deploys cable modems in our area. Working as a PC Systems Administrator for Ford Motor Company I get a lot of questions from folks in the building about Comcast and why I dropped their service. Most of these folks who are asking do so because the stability of their connections to the Internet have suffered since they were transitioned to Comcast’s new internal network or they’re not getting the speeds they were previously.
I tell them that it was a matter of trust, or rather the lack of, I had for Comcast that made me switch. I knew there would be connectivity and speed issues during the transition from the Road Runner broadband network that the former MediaOne service used prior to being gobbled up by AT&T (which had to give up X number of regions to Comcast in order to complete the merger, hence why I was suddenly a Comcast customer) to the new network Comcast had built. That wasn’t the issue. They’d eventually work out the connectivity and speed issues and things would settle down again. It was the fact that they were lowering the cap on upload speeds from what I had previously, the fact that they were going to charge more for the same service (e.g. modem rental charge), that they were not going to allow VPN connections unless you signed up for their pro service (at $99 a month), were dropping all of the USENET newsgroups (which doesn’t matter to most of their clients), and the fact that they were now using a shadow proxy to capture their customer’s websurfing habits. It was the shadow proxy issue that acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back in my decision to drop Comcast, not so much because it existed, but because Comcast said it didn’t. At least at first.
I can understand why Comcast wanted to use a shadow proxy. First, it saves them money. There are a lot of websites that a lot of people visit every day such as Amazon.com or Yahoo and by using a proxy server Comcast can “cache” much of the data that these people would normally be downloading from those websites over and over again. When a user tries to go to Amazon the proxy server checks its cache to see if it has a recent copy of the data and if it does it gives that to the user instead of actually connecting them to Amazon directly. The proxy server only connects to Amazon to retrieve data that it doesn’t already have and this reduces the amount of traffic outside of Comcast’s own network. In simple terms, any traffic that Comcast keeps within its own network will cost it less than traffic that goes outside of it thus saving money. A lot of ISPs do this and there isn’t anything particularly wrong with it.
The second thing you can do with a proxy, however, is track where your customers are going on the net. Comast was doing this as well. Customer surfing habits can be a very profitable knowledge to have as there are a lot of companies willing to pay big bucks to know that sort of information. This is the bit that most folks get upset about, but done properly this isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. There are lots of valid reasons, beyond merely the potential resale value, to gather such information and more ISPs than Comcast engage in this practice. As long as such data is gathered in aggregate, and not tied to individual customers in any way, then most folks have little to be concerned about.
Unless, of course, they aren’t aware that it’s happening in the first place. Comcast’s transition to their new network was appallingly handled starting with the boneheaded decision to start the process on a holiday weekend. Why the hell would anyone with any sense at all undertake such a massive project on a weekend when many of the companies they are working with to develop their new network will be closed and unavailable because everyone is home for the holiday? That’s just stupid and not a good portent of things to come. Word of the shadow proxy first came out when a lot of newly transitioned people suddenly couldn’t get to their favorite websites (Amazon.com being one of them) and the more technically inclined among them started looking into why. If you know what you’re looking for and where to go for the tools, it’s not really difficult to discover the presence of a proxy being used by your ISP. Comcast apparrently seems not to understand this because as word first came out that they were using a shadow proxy and the first waves of folks inquiring as to why they were using it started emailing and calling the technical support hotline Comcast decided to deny it was using a proxy of any kind. Now whether this was a case of the tech support people just not being informed by upper management of this change in the network or a case of being told to outright deny it is hard to say. Either way there was no mention of the change made to any customer in any official documentation about the transition prior to the move. Once word finally started getting out into the press about the shadow proxy Comcast finally officially owned up to the practice and claimed that their intentions behind the use of the proxy and the data collection was purely to provide the customer with better service.
The fact remains, however, that they never bothered to tell their customers that they were going to do this in the first place and actively denied that they were doing it for several weeks until there was too much evidence that they were lying about it. It doesn’t help their case that reporters have since discovered that Comcast may be collecting more data than is necessary for the purposes they claim to be using it for. Specifically, they were capturing individual user’s IP addresses along with what sites they were visiting which would allow them to tie individual customers to their surfing habits. In effect giving them a detailed profile of where each of their customers goes on the Internet and how long they stay there.
Comcast has since stopped collecting any data on their customer’s web surfing habits in response to all the negative press and criticism they’ve gotten over it, but there’s no guarantee that they won’t start again. The truth is they lied about their changes, made false claims about their new network being more stable and faster than the old one (it isn’t), and raised their prices prior to working out all the bugs in the system. To top it off if you don’t subscribe to their cable TV service then they charge you an additional $10 a month for the cable modem service and seeing as they dropped the one channel I had digital cable for (and then promptly raised the price) I had no reason to keep their cable service. I was already paying extra for 2 additional IP addresses (of which they lost one during the transition to the new network) so that all three of the PCs we have here could be on the net at once as it was easier than fiddling with an Internet router. Total all of that up and I was suddenly paying substantially more than I would for DSL for less features than I previously had with a company that was quickly proving it couldn’t be trusted. That’s why I switched from Comcast to Earthlink and am eagerly awaiting the deployment of WOW.
Incidently, almost a week and a half after I canceled my cable modem service and a full six weeks since I put in the trouble ticket, Comcast technical support finally called me back about getting me that third IP address I had been paying extra for and had lost during the transition. With such speedy service it’s no wonder they have to raise the price!