What Comcast Doesn't Want You to Know About Data Caps

Comcast wants you to believe that it's just playing fair in its latest push to control the Internet. Last week the cable-Internet colossus expanded its plan to impose unnecessary broadband-usage caps on Comcast users in cities across the South.

Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas told the Associated Press that caps "introduce some more fairness" into the way Internet users pay for data. Comcast customers who exceed a monthly 300 Gigabyte usage cap will have additional fees tacked onto their monthly bill.

Photo: Free Press
That's a bitter pill to swallow for the millions of Comcast customers who've already seen bills for the company's cable bundle rise at many times the rate of inflation. Those hoping to save costs by cutting cable television altogether now face a Comcast-imposed scheme to choke out the popular trend of watching TV over the Internet.

No Congestion Here

In documents leaked onto reddit last week, Comcast instructs its customer service representatives how to spin the expansion of data caps. The reasons for the caps, the documents say, are "fairness and [the need to provide] a more flexible policy to our customers." But what could be more fair and flexible than giving customers the unlimited data plan that many originally paid for?

The argument favored by Comcast and other Internet service providers is that streaming a lot of data somehow hurts others on the network. Being a good neighbor means not blocking up the pipes for others. For years access providers have insisted that caps mitigate any congestion that might crop up if you're, say, binging on Orange Is the New Black. Yet there's absolutely no real-world evidence of congestion on wired networks.

Comcast admits as much. In the same leaked documents, Comcast tells customer reps NOT to say that "the program is about congestion management. (It is not)."

While this admission has gotten quite a bit of coverage over the last week, the cable industry surrendered this phony rationale years ago, when former FCC chairman turned cable lobbyist Michael Powell confessed that he and his colleagues were "wrong" to portray data caps as needed to alleviate congestion.

Recent data also prove that congestion on the "last-mile" of cable broadband networks is a myth. 2013 surveys from Cisco and Sandvine show that consumer demand for data was growing at a measurable rate that didn't exceed the capacity of existing networks.

So if congestion isn't the problem, how is imposing data caps fair?

Monopoly Rules

Caps aren't necessary to cover the expense of transmitting more data. After it goes to the expense of installing a high-capacity broadband line at a customer's home, Comcast incurs almost no additional cost in terms of how much data you use. Once that "pipe" is built, it's cheap to operate.

In essence, Comcast is imposing these arbitrary limits and penalties on customers simply because it can.

Customers in Comcast markets have few to no other options for affordable high-speed wired-line access. According to the FCC, three out of every four U.S. households have no choice of providers for an Internet service that meets most people's requirement for home broadband today (20 percent don't have access; 55 percent have access to only one provider). Most Internet users slammed with extra data charges from one company can't take their business to a competing provider.

With its monopoly in place the company has gone to great lengths to frustrate the efficient delivery of the richer media streams its customers request, including competing video and cloud based services.

In 2007, Comcast was caught red-handed blocking customers' ability to use file-sharing services like BitTorrent, which allows people to share audio and video files. It has also refused to provide the technical support needed to enable customers to stream video content that they had paid for on devices of their choosing. And it has a history of interfering with customer efforts to stream Netflix.

Whom Do These Caps Really Harm?

Imposing data caps are just the latest chapter in Comcast's decade-long drive to protect its pay-TV offerings against innovations by online streaming services. It's a move that's harmed Comcast customers the most.

So far this year, the Federal Communications Commission has received thousands of complaints from Comcast users. Many of the complaints concern billing errors and confusion about added fees related to data usage.

"I believe that [data capping] is unjust as we are using our Internet connection for streaming TV shows and movies because we do not subscribe to cable. Comcast is in essence punishing us for not having a pay TV subscription with them," writes one customer from Acworth, Georgia. "We are sadly the first pawns in the chess set to be taken down by Comcast's arbitrary data limits."

Data caps are having a very real impact on Internet users' wallets and online behavior. That's by design. Comcast's aim is to load up broadband bills that already rank among the highest in developed economies. This practice has created unreasonable barriers to access for the many cash-strapped Americans still seeking to get online.

The FCC has yet to investigate this problem thoroughly despite repeated calls to do so from consumer rights groups (including Free Press) and customers.

As more and more companies roll out data caps, the agency should take a deeper look at the ways access providers justify their use. We need to understand the negative impacts that caps have on the affordability and openness of high-speed networks. Internet users demand it. The FCC should too.

That only seems fair.