US broadband provider CenturyLink has confirmed to Motherboard it will suspend all broadband usage caps as millions of Americans quarantine themselves to slow the spread of COVID-19. “We recognize that high-speed internet service plays a crucial role in the everyday lives of our customers,” a company spokesman told Motherboard. “In light of COVID-19, we are suspending our data usage limits at this time.” CenturyLink, one of the nation’s largest internet service providers (ISPs), provides broadband to 5.4 million subscribers across its 37 state footprint. Like many US providers, CenturyLink imposes a one terabyte monthly usage cap, and had previously experimented with charging users an additional $10 per each 50 gigabytes of data consumed. The company’s “excessive use policy” indicates that consumers that repeatedly exceeded the company’s 1 terabyte monthly limit risked getting kicked off the network entirely. “If you continue to exceed your usage plan without taking advantage of one of the options provided, CenturyLink reserves the right to disconnect your service after the third month of excessive usage in a rolling 12-month period,” the policy states. CenturyLink is the second US ISP to suspend such restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive rise in home learning and telecommuting. Some 200 US ISPs employ such limits, some with monthly caps as low as just a few gigabytes.
Early Thursday morning Motherboard reached out to the ten biggest US ISPs that currently employ such penalties, asking if they’d be willing to suspend these restrictions in the wake of the outbreak. By Thursday afternoon AT&T had informed Motherboard it would be suspending its 1 terabyte cap and $10 per 50 GB data overages. Comcast, the nation’s biggest ISP, told Motherboard it was exploring a number of options to aid those now quarantined at home, but so far the elimination of its caps and usage surcharges isn’t among those options. The nation’s fifth biggest cable provider, Mediacom, told Motherboard it would be giving its users an extra 50 GB of data consumption during the month of March. Consumer groups and industry executives alike have long pointed out that these kinds of restrictions and overage fees serve no actual technical purpose outside of price gouging captive customers in uncompetitive markets. Experts say network congestion isn’t really solved by such limits, something confirmed by previously leaked Comcast documents.
The ease at which these companies can quickly suspend such penalties—despite the looming surge in bandwidth consumption from those quarantined—further confirms they weren’t serving much of a technical purpose in the first place. Dane Jasper, CEO of California’s biggest independent ISP Sonic, has long noted that such restrictions are unnecessary in the face of steadily declining bandwidth and network hardware costs. “Usage caps are not rational as a response to congestion on a network, because the network must be built for peak prime-time load,” Jasper previously told Motherboard, adding that such limits were a direct result of limited US broadband competition. “In a duopoly there is little to no competitive market pressure that would curtail these practices,” Jasper said.
Phillip Dampier, an activist who for years has battled such arbitrary broadband restrictions over at his website Stop the Cap, applauded CenturyLink and AT&T’s decision, and urged other US ISPs to follow suit.
"Data caps were always unjustified and the overage penalties even more so, but at a time when Americans are being asked to work, learn, and entertain themselves at home, it is unconscionable cable and phone companies could raise internet bills even higher and profit from the COVAD-19 crisis,” he said. “Data caps and overlimit fees must be suspended immediately."