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Our ISPs Are Using Our Insatiable Need for Streaming Video Against Us

Data caps and zero-rating may endanger the very idea of net neutrality.

by Rachel Pick
Dec 7 2015, 7:03pm

Image: Taro the Shiba Inu/Flickr

All of our YouTube party playlists and Netlix-and-chill date nights are starting to add up: streaming video now accounts for 70 percent of broadband usage, according to data newly released by broadband services company Sandvine.

This statistic might look pretty innocuous and simple on its face, but our dependence on massive amounts of data for our daily use has some dangerous implications. Because cable providers would rather you be watching actual cable programming versus streaming shows from Hulu and Netflix, they impose arbitrary data caps on your Internet usage, like the ones Comcast has been quietly implementing in markets across the country. You end up shelling out for something that costs the providers next to nothing.

In the home, this serves to further divide the haves from the have-nots. Those with disposable income will be able to afford bigger and better data plans, and those with less will have limited access to entertainment and culture. Considering that the lowest income Americans are still struggling to get any sort of broadband connection at all, this is an unwelcome development.

So what about mobile? It's the same thing: more money for more data. One carrier's proposed solution is T-Mobile's new "Binge On" campaign, where content from specific video streaming services will not count towards your data cap. Sounds like a godsend—until you consider that this puts T-Mobile in the position of content gatekeeper.

And T-Mobile isn't the only culprit: on the broadband side, Comcast is launching its own streaming service that—you guessed it—won't count toward your household's data cap. This practice, called "zero-rating," is as much a threat to net neutrality as anything else has been, directing consumers to certain data channels and making the free market less free.

Consumers are not culpable for the way the data market is changing—we're offered few options in terms of broadband providers, and of course we want to watch our favorite shows on-demand and at our leisure. But you should at least be aware of who's screwing you, and why.