Comcast Expands Costly and Pointless Broadband Caps During a Pandemic

Comcast’s monthly usage caps serve no technical purpose, existing only to exploit customers stuck in uncompetitive broadband markets.

Nov 25 2020, 2:00pmSnap

Comcast has decided that the middle of an economic and health crisis is the perfect time to impose costly and unnecessary new restrictions on the company’s broadband subscribers. 

The nation’s biggest cable company quietly announced this week that it would be expanding its unpopular usage caps and overage fees into the Northeast, the only part of the country that had yet to be subjected to its expensive and confusing restrictions.

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Comcast’s website notes that users in these markets face a 1.2 terabyte monthly bandwidth cap, after which customers are charged $10 per each additional 50 gigabytes of data consumed, up to a maximum of $100 extra per month.

Users can avoid the usage surcharges only if they pony up an extra $30 per month for unlimited data—or if they sign up for the company’s $25 per month "xFi Complete" plan—which includes unlimited data and the rental cost for Comcast's proprietary xFi gateway modem and router.

Comcast’s usage cap FAQ doesn’t even try to justify the restrictions because there’s no technical reason for them to exist. Independent studies, telecom executives, and even leaked Comcast memos have for years made it clear that usage caps aren’t technically necessary to help ISPs manage network congestion. 

"It's worth remembering that data caps have nothing to do with congestion or capacity constraints,” EFF lawyer and telecom expert Ernesto Falcon told Motherboard earlier this year.

Instead, he noted such restrictions offer telecom monopolies an easy way to jack up monthly U.S. broadband bills, already some of the most expensive in the developed world. ISPs also exploit caps anti-competitively, often by exempting their own streaming services from such restrictions while still penalizing users that use third-party services like Netflix.

179 U.S. ISPs impose usage caps, some of which are as low as a few gigabytes per month.

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In the early aughts, telecom giants claimed that these surcharges were necessary to handle congestion. After that claim was repeatedly debunked, ISPs like Comcast shifted toward trying to claim caps are about “fairness.” But that’s also false, say consumer groups.

“ISPs like to claim that this is about ‘fairness,’ but high-capacity users aren’t an unfair burden on networks, or on the providers themselves,” consumer advocacy organization Free Press said of the news. “On a day-to-day basis, it costs Comcast the same amount if you use 1.2TB, 3TB or 5 MB per month. It’s clear there’s no economic or technical justification for hiking your monthly broadband bill. The only reason ISPs are taking this action is because they can.”

Comcast had historically avoided such restrictions in the Northeast due to competition from Verizon’s uncapped FiOS fiber broadband service. The company did not respond to a request for comment asking why it chose a national health and economic crisis to suddenly expand the costly and unnecessary restrictions. 

Back in March, numerous U.S. ISPs struck a voluntary “pledge” with the FCC, promising they'd suspend usage caps and overage fees and avoid kicking users offline for nonpayment.

But many Americans, some of them disabled, say ISPs proceeded to kick them offline anyway despite repeated promises to the contrary. The FCC, now without the authority to meaningfully police ISPs in the wake of its controversial net neutrality repeal, has failed to extend the pledge, punish non-compliant ISPs, or track which users have been kicked offline.

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Most ISPs have long-since re-imposed usage limits despite an accelerating pandemic.

Roughly 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly, and have no alternative ISP to flee to should their ISP impose such restrictions. With no meaningful government oversight or competition to rein in their worst impulses, big ISPs like Comcast see little to no real penalty when they raise prices, fail to expand broadband, or bungle customer service.

While users often get bogged down in the discussion over whether a terabyte is “fair,” experts have long argued caps shouldn’t exist at all, and are little more than a price hike. In this case, a price hike imposed at the peak of a raging pandemic, in which millions of Americans are facing unprecedented economic hardship with little to no help from the U.S. government. 

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