Comcast has been forced to temporarily back off plans to expand the company’s widely despised—and completely unnecessary—broadband usage caps. After a backlash, Comcast now says the new restrictions won’t be imposed on its Northeast customers until July 2022, though Comcast customers in already capped markets won’t see any such reprieve.
Reddit users celebrated the decision, which came only after some state lawmakers threatened new legislation to prohibit what they called an unnecessary cash grab by the cable giant.
Last November, Comcast announced that the company would be expanding its existing broadband usage caps and overage surcharges into twelve additional Northeast states. Under the restrictions, Comcast customers face a 1.2 terabyte monthly cap, then have to pay $10 extra per each additional 50 gigabytes of data consumed.
The only way to avoid these restrictions is to pay an extra $30 every month for unlimited data—or 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.
The problem: the restrictions aren’t technically necessary, and experts have repeatedly noted they exist exclusively to raise already high rates on captive subscribers.
"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 last year.
Independent studies, telecom executives, and even leaked Comcast memos have repeatedly shown the restrictions don’t genuinely help with network capacity. They are, however, a direct result of US broadband monopolization and limited competition. One recent study found that roughly 83 million Americans have the choice of just one ISP, usually Comcast.
The one-two punch of limited competition and apathetic federal regulators usually means U.S. telecom giants see no penalty for such behavior. But some Massachusetts state lawmakers were quick to criticize the company, proposing a new law last January that would ban usage caps during the pandemic entirely.
“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,” the lawmakers said. “COVID-19 has forced internet access to become a basic need, and we can’t allow this vital service to be priced unfairly.”
In a statement Comcast made it clear the company was only delaying the expansion of broadband caps, not suspending them entirely. The suspension also doesn’t impact usage caps that already exist in 27 of the 39 states Comcast operates in.
“We are delaying implementation of our new data plan in our Northeast markets until 2022,” Comcast said. “We recognize that our data plan was new for our customers in the Northeast, and while only a very small percentage of customers need additional data, we are providing them with more time to become familiar with the new plan.”
But there’s nothing to become familiar with. The restrictions are glorified price hikes imposed on the backs of customers who already pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world thanks to limited competition. So while a reprieve was welcomed, experts have long warned that the restrictions shouldn’t exist in the first place.