Charter Communications is getting ready to enforce usage caps on its broadband subscribers and will adopt congestion management techniques to manage its network that may throttle the bandwidth of some users during periods of heaviest network traffic.

All broadband service providers have been figuring out how they want to manage the rapid and inexorable growth of bandwidth demand.

Time Warner Cable has experimented with fairly strict caps that correlate with actual usage behaviors. TWC designed tiers that matched some of the more common behavioral models in an attempt to encourage subscribers to select the tiers most appropriate to their own usage. TWC has so far failed with this model.

In contrast, Comcast has set some generous usage caps (250 GB per month) designed largely to discourage the heaviest users – in cable's estimation, bandwidth abusers, those who download far more content than any viewer might be reasonably expected to consume, and in the process bog down the network. If any Comcast customers are complaining, they are too few in number to register.

Charter is adopting the latter model. "Our intent is to prevent the very small number of users who are consuming excessive amounts of bandwidth from negatively impacting the experience for the majority of our customers," a spokesman wrote in response to an inquiry from CED.

In December, the company will begin contacting customers who exceed their bandwidth allotments "to make them aware of their usage patterns, to help identify possible causes (e.g., unsecured wireless routers or viruses) and review security options with these customers to reduce the risk of unauthorized Internet use," the Charter spokesman wrote.

The company is currently exploring ways to provide customers with the ability to meter their own usage. This technique won't be implemented until sometime in 2011, however, the spokesman said.

That might seem like putting the cart before the horse, but Charter's hand was forced when news of the bandwidth caps leaked, via DSLReports.

If any subscribers continue to exceed their usage caps after being advised of their excessive usage, Charter may suspend their service.

The company actually published usage thresholds almost two years ago, in February 2009 in its Acceptable Use Policy (AUP).

The AUP sets residential service thresholds at 100 GB per month for customers subscribing to Lite and Express services, and 250 GB for Plus and Max subs. Previously, Charter granted Ultra60 subscribers unlimited downloads; the company is now imposing a cap of 500 GB per month.

There is no intent at this time to charge for incremental usage above the threshold. "Customers can exceed the threshold without financial penalty but will be subject to our new AUP and the enforcement of this policy," the spokesman said.

The company will simultaneously be adopting congestion management techniques. According to the company, the policy will be protocol-agnostic – it won't distinguish among the online activities, protocols or applications a customer uses.

"It applies only during periods of congestion (which we find to be relatively rare). It affects only the heaviest users (less than 1 percent), in small-time increments, who will have their bandwidth limited during times of congestion; however, no Internet activities will be blocked. We based this system on the 'fair share' model described to the FCC in September of 2008," Charter said.