Comcast waiving data caps hasn’t hurt its network—why not make it permanent?

By Jon Brodkin

Illustration of a water hose with Internet data trickling out of it, represented by 1s and 0s.

Back in the before times, when a larger percentage of the human race roamed the Earth, i.e., several weeks ago, Comcast customers had to deal with something called a "data cap." Cable users who consumed more than a terabyte of Comcast-branded Internet data in a single month had to pay an extra $10 for each additional, precious block of 50GB, or $50 more each month for unlimited data. Now, with a pandemic sweeping the United States and more people spending each day at home than ever, consumer-broadband usage is way up. But instead of raking in as many overage fees as it can, Comcast decided to upgrade everyone to unlimited data for no extra charge, for two months beginning March 13—and its network has no problem handling it.

Comcast on Monday said it has measured a 32 percent increase in peak traffic since March 1 and an increase of 60 percent in some parts of the US. VoIP and video conferencing is up 212 percent, VPN traffic is up 40 percent, gaming downloads are up 50 percent, and streaming video is up 38 percent.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable and home-Internet provider, described the pandemic's impact as "an unprecedented shift in network usage" but not one that diminishes Comcast's ability to provide sufficient Internet bandwidth. "It's within the capability of our network; and we continue to deliver the speeds and support the capacity our customers need while they're working, learning, and connecting from home," Comcast said. The company continues to monitor network performance and "add capacity where it's needed."

Comcast's long-term project to add fiber to its fiber-coaxial hybrid network "put us in a good position to manage the increases that we are experiencing today," the company said. The ability of Comcast and other cable providers to handle traffic surges is supported by research we wrote about last week: it found that median speed-test results fell in dozens of big US cities, but in general the speeds haven't fallen enough to prevent normal usage of the networks. The Federal Communications Commission's Republican leadership has been touting US networks' strong performance during the pandemic, saying drastic measures like limiting Netflix quality aren't necessary because there's enough bandwidth for everyone.

We asked Comcast today if it still plans to re-implement home-Internet data caps after 60 days and whether it's considering extending the current arrangement or waiving the caps permanently. A Comcast spokesperson confirmed to us that the current plan is for the data-cap waiver to last until May 13 but said it's too early to comment on what the company will do after that.

In this article, we'll talk about why Comcast enforces a data cap, about some of the data-cap-related problems that harm customers even in normal times, and about how the ongoing pandemic shows that Comcast could make the data cap go away without ruining its Internet service.

Why do data caps exist? The answer is obvious

With Comcast's network performing so well during the pandemic, why did Comcast's data cap exist in the first place? The answer has always been "money," of course—a Comcast executive once acknowledged in a Twitter reply that imposing data caps is a business decision, not one driven by technical necessity. But it might be useful to re-examine Comcast's previous justifications for the data cap now that the arbitrary limit is temporarily gone and Comcast could face public pressure to make it go away forever.

Comcast's official line is that it imposes a data cap to ensure "fairness" among its customers, which is not the same thing as saying data caps are necessary to prevent network congestion. But Comcast has occasionally spoken of Internet data as if it's a depletable resource, like water or gas.

Using more broadband data is like driving farther in your car and thus using more gasoline or turning the air conditioning on higher and "consum[ing] more electricity... the same is true for [broadband] usage," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in 2015. That's when the company was rolling the cap out through much of its 39-state territory. (Comcast also makes sure to never call the data cap a "data cap" but rather a "data plan.")

But Comcast's commitment to "fairness" coincidentally doesn't apply in the Northeast United States, where it faces strong competition from Verizon's un-capped fiber-to-the-home FiOS service. Comcast was giving customers in the Northeast states unlimited data all along, even before the pandemic, despite imposing the caps in 27 other states. Customers in Northeastern states don't experience this particular brand of Comcast-imposed "fairness," but those customers don't seem to mind since they can use their Internet as much as they like without paying overage fees.

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While Roberts likened Internet data to a utility, Comcast's system for counting that data isn't regulated like a utility, leaving room for major errors that occasionally cause customers to be incorrectly billed overage fees. Making matters worse, Comcast faces little competition, often making it impossible for customers to find a better option.

Comcast may say it's about "fairness," but the purpose of data caps is clear: to charge more money while providing an essential service in a market that has little regulation or competition. Comcast doesn't slash a user's bill to almost nothing if the customer leaves town for most of the month and uses almost no data. The only alternative for such cases is Comcast's "Flexible Data Option," which provides a mere $5 credit if you use less than 5GB in a month and comes with the risk of a heavy penalty: "if you use 6GB of data or more in any given month, you will not receive the $5 credit and will be charged $1 for each GB of data used over the 5GB included in the Flexible Data Option (up to $200 per month)," Comcast says.

Comcast claims that "those who use less Internet data, pay less." But aside from the risky deal provided in the Flexible Data Option, the "fairness" that Comcast speaks of isn't the kind of fairness that results in utility bills going down significantly when you don't use the service.

The lack of real fairness becomes even more apparent when Comcast's data meter is wrong. Heavy users pay more, of course, but even light users will pay data-overage fees on the rare but real circumstances in which Comcast's data meter spits out the wrong number because of some glitch. In October 2019, after many complaints, Comcast acknowledged that its data-usage meter gave customers inaccurate readings for two months because of a software bug, causing the ISP to incorrectly charge about 2,000 users for exceeding their monthly data caps.

Yet when customers claim the data meter is wrong, Comcast customer-service reps routinely tell them they must be mistaken, that Comcast knows what it's doing, and that the bill is correct and must be paid. Comcast tells customers that its data meter's accuracy has been verified by a third-party firm (that was paid by Comcast), but it never shows a customer proof that the meter was correct in the particular instance that caused a customer to get a higher bill.

Occasionally, the customer turns out to be right, Comcast's meter was wrong, and the data-overage charge is refunded. News reporters are sometimes able to influence Comcast just enough to help some unlucky customer get a deserved refund. But more often, I get emails from customers who see sudden, inexplicable spikes in usage and are convinced that the data meter was wrong—but can't prove it. We have no way of knowing how often data-overage fees are paid and not refunded because there was a mistake and no one was able to prove that it was a mistake. The burden of proof is on the customer, not Comcast.

None of this seems fair to customers who pay high base prices for Internet and then face unexpected data-overage charges. Perhaps if Comcast dramatically reduced a customer's monthly bill every time they stayed significantly under the cap, that message of "fairness" would seem more accurate.

For now, data caps are expected to return

Now that Comcast has done the previously unthinkable—waive its data caps throughout the nation for two full months—the company is naturally facing calls to make the change permanent. "The coronavirus crisis has put the lie to ISPs' arguments about data caps," Houston Chronicle technology editor Dwight Silverman wrote.

Democratic members of the FCC and the US Senate called on ISPs to waive the caps during the pandemic, and ISPs obliged. Those policymakers could keep the pressure on after the pandemic ends. When contacted by Ars today, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said:

If there was any doubt that data caps weren't necessary to manage network loads, that argument is settled—families are using far more data in their homes as a result of the pandemic, without issue. Data caps have always been about socking consumers with extra fees to pad Big Cable's profit margins. Even after the COVID-19 emergency passes, ISPs should do away with unnecessary data caps.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told Ars that the FCC still hasn't done enough "to get providers to lift caps and eliminate fees" during the pandemic. In the long run, the necessity of data caps should be evaluated, she said. "Over the long term, we will have to assess the lessons learned from the use of so much connectivity during this pandemic, including the role of data caps going forward," Rosenworcel told Ars.

Re-implementing the caps after the crisis passes would remind customers of how arbitrary the limits were in the first place. It isn't just Comcast users who could face the re-emergence of caps: AT&T, the second-biggest US-based ISP that enforces data caps on home-Internet service, also waived caps during the pandemic but apparently plans to re-implement them at some point. AT&T told Ars today that it has "pledged unlimited access for all our Internet customers for 60 days, but the situation is fluid and we have not yet set an end date." AT&T said the big traffic spikes from people working and learning at home during the pandemic "has caused a small amount of stress on our network, but we are adapting and adding capacity when and where needed to address the minimal congestion resulting from this shift."

Comcast and other ISPs could drop the caps permanently and still have a way of charging higher rates to heavy users. ISPs have for many years charged different prices for different speed tiers—you pay more to get more megabits per second, and those per-second limits do more to control Internet use on a moment-to-moment basis than a monthly cap can.

As Silverman wrote, the pandemic "is an opportunity for broadband and wireless providers to rethink the way they treat customers and put the lessons learned in challenging times to work when normalcy returns—whenever that happens."