For years, US broadband providers have taken advantage of a lack of US competition by imposing arbitrary and expensive broadband usage caps and "overage fees." With the country facing a massive surge in videoconferencing and home learning thanks to the coronavirus epidemic, experts say it’s time for broadband providers to suspend these costly, unnecessary restrictions.
Motherboard reached out to the ten largest US broadband providers that employ caps in the United States, and only one of them was willing to go on record to discuss usage caps or their preparedness for COVID-19.
A representative at Comcast informed Motherboard that there were “lots of conversations” currently going on in regards to getting ahead of the outbreak, but wasn’t able to confirm whether a usage cap suspension would be part of the company’s playbook.
"We feel like we already have some of the most generous data allowances in the cable industry," a Mediacom spokesperson said. "Still, Mediacom is giving all customers on all service tiers 50GB of additional data through March 31st. We will revisit again as April approaches to see if this policy needs to be extended or changed."
It’s a problem given that as the nation ponders how to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, a growing list of businesses and schools are demanding US residents work—and learn—from home.
But America’s broadband networks aren’t ready. Thanks to limited competition, affordable broadband is just out of reach for many US residents. One recent study indicated that nearly 42 million Americans lack access to broadband of any kind, nearly double FCC estimates.
And availability is just one part of the problem.
Many US residents lack broadband because they simply can’t afford it. Thanks to revolving door regulators, limited competition, and relentless lobbying, US consumers pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. That’s before you factor in the hidden fees and usage surcharges that routinely drive US broadband bills even higher.
Nearly 200 US broadband providers impose such usage penalties. Monthly usage limits range anywhere from a few gigabytes to 1 terabyte per month, after which consumers are hit with additional surcharges. Comcast, for example, imposes a monthly limit of 1 terabyte in most markets, after which users face penalties of $10 per each additional 50 gigabytes consumed.
With the rise of 4K video, massive software patches, and game streaming, US consumers were already starting to feel the pinch of these limits. But with huge swaths of the US public now being asked to work, learn, and play exclusively from home, those restrictions could impose additional costs on already struggling American families, former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn told Motherboard.
“Fixed and mobile ISPs should step up in this time of crisis and suspend all data caps and overage fees,” she said, adding that such restrictions don’t have much of a technical justification, existing largely as a way for broadband providers to extract even more money from their captive and frustrated customer bases.
Initially, ISPs claimed that such limits were necessary to manage network capacity. Over the years, numerous industry admissions—as well as Comcast documents leaked on Reddit—have shown that’s simply not true, especially given that the cost of both bandwidth and network hardware has continued to drop in the subsequent years.
More recently, ISPs have backed off providing much in the way of justification for the unpopular restrictions whatsoever. Comcast’s website, for example, now simply tells users such limits are “based on a principle of fairness.”
But Sohn said there’s nothing fair about a cash grab only made possible due to limited competition, and urged the Trump FCC to get out ahead of the problem.
“Chairman Pai should show leadership by bringing in the CEOs of the major fixed and wireless ISPs and asking them to suspend data caps and overage fees, and provide extra bandwidth to those who need it at no charge until the COVID-19 crisis is over,” Sohn suggested.
The FCC did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment. When reached for comment, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told Motherboard in a statement that the suspension of usage caps is one of several policies she believes the agency should be considering to ease the looming financial strain on US consumers.
“The coronavirus is presenting the nation with an unprecedented crisis,” Rosenworcel said. “The coronavirus is already exposing hard truths about the digital divide for those without broadband. To meet this challenge, the FCC needs to get to work. The FCC also needs to work with providers to forbear from data caps and fees that can be an encumbrance to connectivity. The time to act is now.”
Ernesto Falcon, a telecom policy lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Motherboard such unnecessary restrictions shouldn’t be used as a revenue generator during a crisis.
"It's worth remembering that data caps have nothing to do with congestion or capacity constraints,” he said. “They are billing practices and not a technical measure. I would hope the ISPs would suspend usage caps and overage fees during a national pandemic where all Americans are being asked to practice social distancing for a handful of weeks. They shouldn't reap new profits during a pandemic from people doing their best to keep their fellow citizens safe."
Experts have repeatedly warned that broadband usage caps and overage fees are little more than a glorified price hike, employed by regional telecom monopolies to drive up costs. In the wake of an unprecedented quarantine and containment effort, experts say that eliminating these costly restrictions is the very least the industry and federal leaders can do.
Update: This post has been updated with comment from Mediacom.