A week or so ago, a notification from Comcast popped up in my browser saying that I’d almost used all my bandwidth for the month. My what? I hadn’t even considered whether or not I had a data cap; it’d never come up. Apparently, each month, between uploads and downloads, I can use a terabyte of data? Overnight, a few games quietly pulled patches on Steam and what remained of my data went “poof!” Whoops. But Comcast, benevolent Internet overlords that they are, recognized my mistake and showed corporate grace, hand-waving the overage. It’s even okay if that happens again—well, for one more month, anyway! After that, once the data cap doth spilleth over a third time, it’s $10 per 50GB.
All of that could go away, of course... if I paid only another $50 per month for unlimited data.
I haven’t given into this bandwidth extortion—yet. This is a goddamn racket. But consider this, as I did last week, at the start of this month’s precious allotment of traffic: Downloading Destiny 2 on Steam would be nearly 100GB, or one-tenth of my data for the month. Earlier that day, I’d also downloaded Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, which clocked in at more than 40GB. Between those two games, I was well on my way to using up a huge part of my allotted data for the month and we were only two days into the month of October!
This is all before Google’s streaming only service, Stadia, launches later this year. Woof.
Games are not getting smaller. Patches are now the sizes of previously “big” games. More games are adopting service models, meaning they’re updated and changed every week, if not every day. Buying physical copies doesn’t change that fact. All these changes are funneled through an increasingly narrow pipe owned by regional monopolies, each of whom are looking at the all digital, all streaming future like the Jack Nicholson nodding yes GIF.
What makes all this so darkly funny is how it answers a question I had a few months back, when my wife and I decided to cancel cable, a move that essentially cut our monthly bill in half. Comcast didn’t even blink. My question, then: How were they going to make this back? It seemed like we were saving $80 a month. Pretty soon, Comcast will get $50 of that back.
I don’t think my Internet habits are out of step with most people. Our family watches a few hours of 1080p video every day, with maybe a little more on the weekends. Three days a week, I stream an hour of Super Mario Maker on Twitch, which later requires me to upload an edited version of the stream to YouTube. iPhones and iPads around the house pluck at Twitter and YouTube, and upload backups of our photos and data. I also download a lot of games, probably more than the average person, which certainly eats the bulk of the traffic.
I also live in suburbia, also known as Comcast Country, which means my options are limited. There is no competition here. You take the Internet that’s provided at the price that they ask.
When I realized what was going on, I went over the edge for a hot minute. I installed ways to monitor traffic on different devices, switched off automatic updates on whatever hardware let me, and even turned the video quality of the camera watching my kid sleep at night to “low.” Still, overnight, my Internet somehow ate up more than 20GB. How? Why? Turns out, I’d forgotten to turn off the PlayStation 4, so it pulled all those Destiny 2: Shadowkeep updates. I started doing the math on daily data habits, and quickly realized I’d be well over my cap.
Maybe I could turn off iCloud backups, and do those manually? Maybe I could turn off Google Photos, the secondary backup for the photos of my three-year-old? Maybe I could switch our video streaming to 720p, which I probably wouldn’t honestly notice that much? Maybe I would turn off wi-fi on my phone and use the unlimited mobile data through my wife’s work plan? Maybe I’ll scan my PC’s traffic habits and try to figure out what rogue app is sending 500MB of data overnight, even though nothing should have been transferring?
Or maybe I’ll realize the reason rackets work is because it’s easier to just pay the money.
When I shared my plight on Twitter, a lot of people chimed in with their own struggles. The lengths some have gone is funny, but reveals a cruelty of the current system, whose endlessly exploitable limitations will only be expanded very soon. This isn’t sustainable.
Probably the most infuriating response I got was from people who lived outside of the United States, wondering if I was honestly pulling their leg. To them, the notion of data caps was patently absurd. That so many folks thought I was joking should tell you everything you need to know. Of course it “makes sense” a modern public utility would be something we could access freely. It doesn’t have to be this way! We could regulate data caps out of existence.
But there’s no sign of that yet, even as we barrel towards a world where more and more things demand data. How long before Microsoft or Sony partners with a company like Comcast and makes download games something that doesn’t count against your data cap, so long as you opt into, say, Game Pass?
That’s the definition of violating net neutrality! But at this point, I’d consider it progress.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've know why there's no Bully 2 yet, drop an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal.