AT&T Internet usage billing off by as much as 4,700%

How can your ISP count your packets if it doesn't know how to count?

If gas goes up this summer above $4 per gallon, or even $5 per gallon, how comfortable would you be pulling in to a full-service station whose pump dial spun randomly and you were charged according to how many gallons the attendant figured had gone into your tank while holding down the lever and counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi" at about 50 cents per Mississippi?

It might happen to your Internet costs if carriers are able to move to usage based billing under current FCC regulations and a shocking degree of their own incompetence.

Two weeks ago, according to a story in DSLReports.com, AT&T confirmed that it is putting caps on data customers can download -- 150 GB per month for its DSL customers and 250GB/month on subscribers to its U-Verse fiberoptic service, which offers speeds of up to 24 Mbit/sec downstream.

Customers who go over the limit three times during the entire life of the account will have to pay $10 for every 50GB over the limit.

Usage-based billing is routine for business users, though it's unusual in consumer markets. AT&T and other carriers have experimented with it, to widespread complaints from customers.

Those complaints got louder following AT&T's revelation of the usage-based billing plan when it became clear it had a real problem measuring the volume of data individual customers use.

In one case AT&T's metrics varied so wildly it under-reported one household's usage by 91 percent on one day and over-estimated it by 4,700 percent another.

"...four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi..."

It's not clear what the problem is, but DSLReports and many of its telecom-geek readers theorize the measurements come from statistical reports from Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexers (DSLAM) devices that merge many DSL lines into a larger IP connection at the exchange rather than the subscriber's house.

Because DSLAM works on OSI level 2 it could misinterpret PPoE and ATM networking overhead as legitimate traffic. That explanation covers inaccuracies of about 30 percent, however, leaving at least one subscriber with 4,740-percent-worth of unexplained discrepancy.

AT&T isn't the only carrier with an arithmetic problem, either.

Due to a "known software error," Bell Canada's estimates were off by so much it billed one customer for 30 hours of data usage in one 24-hour period, boosting the family's bill for the month to more than $3,500.

Cogeco, a Canadian cable operator, also admitted consistent inaccuracies and billing problems, eventually deciding not to bill customers under usage-based plans until after it finished "fine tuning of the metering and notification tools."

AT&T eventually admitted it had problems metering data use and promised to work one-on-one with individual customers about billing problems, but didn't offer broader solutions or promises to fix the problem.

Bell is "arguing before Canadian lawmakers that imposing these kinds of usage systems on landline broadband is a reasonable, pro-consumer idea," DSLReports reported.

"...seven Mississippi, eight Mississippi, nine Mississippi, ten Mississippi ..."

In the U.S., AT&T's gross incompetence at data-use measurement makes the whole idea of usage-based billing and access policies controlled entirely by the carrier rather than the user seem ludicrous. Nevertheless, there's a big push by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and other carriers toward usage-based billing on both wireless and wired broadband networks and the overlooked objections of its opponents.

And these are the companies that are arguing that the FCC shouldn't regulate them because that would make the industry less competitive and more expensive for customers, and wouldn't keep pace with the superfast technological development that lets them roll out new pricing plans that overestimate actual use by only a few thousand percent.

Gotta agree with you there, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast; no need for any regulation there. No hint that you'd be as irresponsible and abusive as customers in the future as you have been in the past. You go do whatever you want and the rest of us will just sit back and let you get on with things and pay you whatever you ask when you send the bill.

And at Halloween, we'll let the kid divide the candy who doesn't know how to count. That way, no matter whether anyone gets a fair shake out of the deal, they'll all get to feel cheated.

It will also motivate the non-counter to learn fuel-flow metrics to help in his future career.

"...eleven Mississippi, twelve Mississippi, thirteen Mississippi..."

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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