AT&T is the first major ISP to confirm that it will be suspending all broadband usage caps as millions of Americans bunker down in a bid to slow the rate of COVID-19 expansion. Consumer groups and a coalition of Senators are now pressuring other ISPs to follow suit.
Telecom experts told Motherboard this morning that broadband caps and overage fees don’t serve any real technical purpose, and are little more than a glorified price hike on uncompetitive markets. We in turn reached out to ten of the nation’s biggest ISPs, only one of which (Mediacom) was willing to go on the record. In the wake of that report, AT&T has confirmed to Motherboard that the company will be suspending all usage caps until further notice. “Many of our AT&T Internet customers already have unlimited home internet access, and we are waiving internet data overage for the remaining customers,” a company spokesperson said. AT&T’s website indicates that while some of its users see no usage caps, others see usage caps ranging from as little as 150 GB to 1 terabyte per month. Users that bypass those limits face penalties upwards of $10 per each additional 50 gigabytes consumed. As millions of US citizens are forced to work, videoconference, and learn at home, such restrictions could easily increase the financial burden on consumers that are likely to see some significant financial hardships in the wake of a shaken economy. US consumers already pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. Both industry executives and leaked Comcast memos have shown that such limits don’t actually help modern ISPs manage congestion. Instead, they largely exist as a way for ISPs to jack up the monthly cost of service well beyond the advertised rate. In the wake of Motherboard’s reporting, a coalition of 17 Senators including Virginia Senator Mark Warner issued a letter to the nation’s biggest ISPs, demanding they stop engaging in a practice critics have long said is little more than glorified price gouging of captive customers. “As organizations around the country formulate their responses to the recent outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, we write to discuss the steps that your company is taking to accommodate the unprecedented reliance we will likely see on telepresence services, including telework, online education, telehealth, and remote support services,” the Senators wrote. “Specifically, we ask that you temporarily suspend broadband caps and associated fees or throttling for all communities affected by COVID-19 and work with public school districts, colleges, and universities to provide free, or at-cost, broadband options for students whose schools close due to COVID-19 who don’t have access at home,” they added. Consumer groups like Free Press were also quick to issue statements urging ISPs to cease the practice of spurious and unnecessary surcharges in the face of the looming pandemic.
“We may all soon be subject to various degrees of social distancing, which will likely involve a heavier reliance on digital communications and a greater demand for data,” the group said in a statement. “Internet providers must ensure that students are still able to learn, employers are still able to conduct business, and we’re all able to communicate with each other without having our connections capped or cut off.”