Why Comcast Will Cap Your Data (Not to Improve Your Service)

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The many customers already unhappy with their Internet service through Comcast have another reason to be upset about the company’s policies. Colin Lecher reports for The Verge that Comcast has been quietly rolling out caps to customers’ monthly data usage, along with overage charges that customers can pay to get out of them.

The company is now expanding the list of locations where the usage caps have gone into effect, and customers in parts of Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana will be subject to a 300GB monthly cap as of December 1. Data caps aren’t new for Comcast, but are rare at other major cable companies.

The company has said that the data caps affect only a small percentage of its user base, but it will certainly be an unwelcome change for the users who exceed the 300GB limit. Users who go over the cap will now be required to pay $30 for unlimited data, or to be charged an extra $10 for every 50GB of data over the 300GB limit. The $30 seems to fluctuate slightly depending on the market; in Atlanta, users are being charged an extra $35. If even a small fraction of users opt to pay the extra $30 or $35 to remove the data cap, that could prove to be a significant source of revenue for Comcast.

Comcast informs users who are newly subject to the caps that they’ll be notified when they’ve reached the limit via email and an in-browser message. “If you are on the 300 gigabytes plan, we will send you a courtesy ‘in-browser’ notice and an email letting you know when you reach 90 percent, 100 percent, 110 percent and 125 percent of your monthly data usage plan amount,” the company explains.

Comcast says that it’s testing the new limit as a trial, but that trial is quickly expanding to more and more locations. The cities where the usage cap will go into effect on December 1 are Little Rock, Arkansas; Houma, LaPlace, and Shreveport, Louisiana; Chattanooga, Greenville, and Johnson City/Gray, Tennessee; and Galax, Virginia. The usage cap — and the introduction of a hefty fee to lift the limit — was first introduced in Florida in September, and the price structure was announced for the Atlanta area in October.

Comcast’s website explains that its “data usage plan trials” are now in effect in “Huntsville, Mobile and Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Tucson, Arizona; Little Rock, Arkansas; Fort Lauderdale, the Keys and Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Houma, LaPlace and Shreveport, Louisiana; Maine; Jackson and Tupelo, Mississippi; Chattanooga, Greeneville, Johnson City/Gray, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Galax, Virginia.”

You can check if your area is part of the trials by checking your account number or zip code against the extensive list of affected areas on Comcast’s website, and confirm trial start dates on another page on the company’s site. Users who are concerned about the usage caps can estimate their monthly usage with Comcast’s calculator tool, which seems unlikely to be particularly helpful, or track their usage with the usage meter they can find by signing into their accounts.

DSL Reports, which first reported on the new markets in which the usage cap is taking effect, reported that the notice being sent to users informs them that most shouldn’t worry about the data cap, since the “median usage for XFINITY Internet customers is 40 GB of data in a month,” and “it appears this new 300 GB data plan will not impact you.” But as Karl Bode points out for the publication, the rise of Internet video and 4K streams will almost certainly see most households’ usage increasing dramatically over the next five years.

Bode explains that all of this comes down to timing for Comcast. “Comcast’s hoping to have these caps in place before Internet video truly takes off as a way to counter the inevitable revenue decline of traditional television.” While the motivation for what amounts to a rate hike is clear, Comcast insists that the policy is about “fairness,” citing statistics that approximately 8% of its customers go over 300GB. Bode notes that while many consumers have complained of Comcast price gouging in uncompetitive markets, it doesn’t seem that Comcast will stop expanding its usage caps, with about 15% of the company’s users now subject to usage limits.

However, it seems clear that the introduction of usage limits is one made with Comcast’s bottom line in mind, not one made out of technical necessity. Dante D’Orazio reports for The Verge that a leaked Comcast memo acknowledges that the data caps have nothing to do with network congestion. The memo counsels customer service representatives responding to inquiries about the data cap expansion:

Do say: “Fairness and providing a more flexible policy to our customers.”

Don’t say: “The program is about congestion management.” (It is not.)

The data caps won’t improve network reliability or performance, and Comcast is charging customers more for the data they’ve been using for years simply because it can. And it’s putting the policy in place — with a nationwide rollout very likely to come next — just as customers’ usage is likely to increase. Representatives are counseled to put a positive spin on the news, telling customers that users in trial markets have their plans “increased” to 300GB. Which might sound nonsensical, but D’Orazio explains that “in officially-sanctioned PR-speak, customers in non-trial markets don’t have unlimited data, they have a 250GB data usage plan, although we are not currently enforcing this policy.'”

Other information of interest in the memo is the company’s policy for dealing with customers who use terminology that the company doesn’t like. If you call Comcast and say “net neutrality” or ask about what does and doesn’t count toward the data cap, you’ll be transferred to a different customer service team. Calls will also be escalated if customers make “observations about how Xfinity services are or are not counted relative to third party services,” a topic that representatives are prohibited from addressing. Historically, Comcast’s own services, like its Xfinity app for Xbox, haven’t counted against caps, while competing services like Netflix do.

In the past, most customers targeted with usage caps have been in uncompetitive markets, where there are few other options for users unhappy with Comcast’s policies. While Comcast has so far avoided the Northeast, where Verizon’s FiOS is prevalent, the latest expansion includes Chattanooga, which is home to the EPB municipal fiber service that Comcast very publicly tried to fight out of existence.

Jon Brodkin reports for Ars Technica that even before the expansion of the trials, customers were complaining to the Federal Communications Commission about Comcast’s data caps. A consumer advocacy group called Free Press has called on the FCC to investigate Comcast’s usage caps, alleging that “Comcast continues to exert its dominance in the uncompetitive market for high-speed Internet access,” and that the caps are “part of Comcast’s scheme to stifle innovation and choice in online video and cloud-based services.”

The FCC hasn’t outlawed data caps, but in its net neutrality order specified required procedures for disclosing caps to customers, and said that it would review whether specific caps violate its standards on a case-by-case basis. Caps would violate FCC rules if they “unreasonably interfere” with the ability of customers and online service providers to reach one another via broadband.

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