by Dan Moren
Comcast to enforce data caps across US, starting in early 2021
Comcast’s 1.2TB monthly data cap is coming to 12 more states and the District of Columbia starting January 2021. The unpopular policy was already enforced in most of Comcast’s 39-state US territory over the past few years, and the upcoming expansion will for the first time bring the cap to every market in Comcast’s territory.
As a Comcast subscriber in a state that hasn’t previously been subject to data caps, this is disappointing. I’ve ridden close to that 1.2TB limit a couple times in the last six months, though I haven’t surpassed it yet.
But there are several arguments against this move, as Brodkin points out. One, of course, being that we’re in the middle of a pandemic where people are increasingly relying on their home internet connections for tasks like video conferencing at work and with families, as well as just keeping themselves entertained in a time where options to do so are often limited.
Second is, as some smaller ISPs have discovered, a lack of data caps doesn’t actually adversely impact service:
One small ISP in Maryland, Antietam Broadband, decided to permanently remove data caps after finding that increased usage during the pandemic didn’t harm the network. Antietam also said that customers working at home switched to “broadband packages that more accurately reflected their broadband needs.” As Antietam’s experience shows, heavy Internet users often pay for faster speeds, ensuring that ISPs get more revenue from heavy users even when there’s no data cap.
The long and short of is that data caps are about enforcing artificial scarcity. Data, unlike, say, natural gas or electricity, does not actually carry costs that scale along with quantity. Which Comcast itself has admitted:
When Comcast was enforcing a 300GB monthly cap in 2015, a Comcast engineering executive said imposing the monthly data limit was a business decision, not one driven by technical necessity.
Thirdly, Comcast’s own tools for measuring data usage are imprecise at times, leading to unfair charges.
Add this all up and it sure looks like profiteering, especially during the era of COVID-19.
If there is a bright side to all of this, however, it’s that the incoming administration is far more likely to take a hard look at these practices, and to actually take action against them via regulatory agencies like the FCC. But such a process will probably be slow and carries no guarantees.
Frankly, this wouldn’t be such a bad situation if the ISP market was actually competitive, but in many—if not most—markets around the country, options are pretty limited. My city actually has two competing cable companies, but many of the cities and towns surrounding us only have a single option for fast internet.1 Virtual monopolies have been propped up by governments around the company, and as long as the government is looking into big tech, it should probably be leveling some scrutiny on big ISPs like Comcast too.
- And no, I’m not counting DSL. ↩