New Massachusetts Bill Would Ban Broadband Caps During the Pandemic

Telecom monopolies are price gouging during a public health and economic crisis. Some lawmakers aren’t amused.
January 29, 2021, 2:00pm
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Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Massachusetts lawmakers are introducing a new law that would prohibit U.S. broadband providers from imposing broadband usage caps during the pandemic.

Last month, Representatives Andy Vargas, Dave Rogers, and 69 other Massachusetts lawmakers blasted Comcast for the company’s decision to expand its controversial broadband usage caps into the Northeast during a public health and economic crisis.

Comcast now imposes a 1.2 terabyte monthly cap in all markets. Users who consume more have to shell out $10 for each additional 50 gigabytes consumed—on top of their existing monthly bill. The surcharges are capped at $100 extra per month, though users can avoid them entirely by signing up for a $30 more expensive unlimited data plan.

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The problem: experts, executives, and even leaked Comcast memos have made it clear there’s no technical justification for the restrictions. 

Consumer groups have long argued broadband caps serve no real purpose outside of price gouging captive customers in uncompetitive markets. And for the better part of the last 20 years, most state and federal lawmakers have looked the other way as regional telecom monopolies use a bevy of bogus fees to covertly jack up advertised rates. 

But with kids being forced to huddle in the dirt outside of Taco Bell during the pandemic just to get access to affordable broadband, the political winds appear to be shifting.

“It is inconceivable that Comcast would choose to impose this 'cap and fee' plan during a pandemic, when many Massachusetts residents are forced to work and attend school from home via the Internet,” the lawmakers told Comcast, AT&T, and other providers.

After being underwhelmed by ISP responses, Vargas and Rogers are taking things one step further by introducing a new bill that would ban Internet service providers from imposing or expanding broadband caps for up to 60 days after the end of the pandemic. The bill also repeals a section of Massachusetts General Law that restricts the state’s ability to regulate ISPs.

“From our communication with Comcast, we know that they’re exploring pushing back the implementation of caps in response, but it doesn’t seem like they’re willing to get rid of them altogether,” Vargas’ office told Motherboard.

Under the law, ISPs would also be prohibited from shutting off broadband to consumers facing economic hardship during the pandemic. ISPs would also be prohibited from raising rates or imposing spurious surcharges while the country remains in the grip of an economic crisis. 

“The pandemic has created record levels of unemployment and food insecurity for families in the Commonwealth, meanwhile the internet conglomerates operating here continue to rake in revenue and have seen record numbers of subscribers,” Vargas said in a statement to Motherboard. “COVID-19 has forced internet access to become a basic need, and we can’t allow this vital service to be priced unfairly.”

U.S. consumers already pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for broadband due to a lack of competition. That same lack of competition means there’s no real market penalty for giants like AT&T and Comcast that impose a wide variety of dodgy surcharges on the backs of already soaring consumer broadband and TV bills. 

Last March the Trump FCC imposed a voluntary moratorium on usage caps or the disconnection of struggling Americans. But because the administration had just got done gutting the FCC’s consumer protection power as part of its net neutrality repeal, it lacked the authority to actually enforce it. In reality, the FCC doesn’t even track users kicked offline for nonpayment.

As a result, many ISPs subsequently ignored the pledge, and most quickly returned to capping subscribers as the pandemic and related economic crisis deepened.

“Charging customers more during a devastating pandemic simply makes no sense,” Representative Rogers said of Comcast’s decision. “This legislation will ensure that these large corporations cannot unfairly burden our communities during a public health crisis, when after all many of us must work from home, participate in remote learning, and perform countless other vital tasks. These services are not a luxury; they are a necessity. The law should treat them accordingly.”

An estimated 179 U.S. ISPs impose usage caps, many as low as a few gigabytes per month. Not only do such restrictions jack up already costly consumer broadband bills, they can be exploited to harm competitors. AT&T, for example, imposes broadband caps if you use Netflix, but not if you use AT&T’s own streaming TV services.

With limited competition and apathetic federal regulators, there’s been little to no real penalty for such behavior. But with Covid clearly demonstrating that broadband is essential to education, opportunity, and survival, lawmakers are finally starting to pay attention.