Data Caps Are Screwing Things Up

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The story of Andre Vrignaud may well end up being the template for the soon-to-be-popular genre of “I just hit my data cap and now I cannot access the internet” stories.  The long version is here, but the short version is that Vrignaud got a call from his ISP Comcast last month.  The call informed him that he had hit his 250 GB monthly data cap.  He wasn’t really sure why (he has roommates, they all stream movies and music regularly) but he chalked it up to one of those things.

This month he got another call from Comcast telling him he hit his cap again.  Because this was the second time, Comcast informed him that they were cutting off his internet access for a year.

At least this time Vrignaud got a clue as to why he hit his cap.  It turns out that he was doing a lot of uploading (remember, downloads and uploads count against data caps).  He was backing up 20 years worth of pictures and music to an online backup service.  Since he stores all of his pictures and music in multiple lossless formats, it was a lot of data.

We do not have a way to independently verify what Vrignaud was doing to hit his cap.  In some ways, it does not really matter.  The activity he is describing is both plausible and legitimate.  As more and more consumers look to cloud services for storage, streaming, and applications, they are likely to run it this same problem themselves.

While Comcast is not alone in imposing data caps, its data cap is problematic for at least two reasons.  First, the punishment for going over the cap is draconian.  Two violations in six months can result in one year of internet exile.  For many customers, losing access to Comcast will be losing access to their best option for a fast internet connection.  (Take a look at this chart of ISP performance from Netflix if you are not convinced.  Notice that ISPs end up clustering by underlying technology type, with cable providers leading the pack followed by DSL and eventually wireless.)

Second, Comcast does not even claim that the caps serve a legitimate purpose.  In 2008, Comcast drew an explicit distinction between throttling designed to ease network congestion and data caps designed to punish “excessive” users.  It is unclear why excessive data use that does not cause network congestion matters to Comcast.  It is further unclear how Comcast determined that 250 GB was “excessive” in 2008, and why it has not revised that level in the years since.

In fact, Comcast appears to now be contradicting statements it made to the FCC in the past about its data cap.  In 2008, Comcast went to some pains to draw a distinction between congestion management practices such as peak time throttling and “excessive use” policies like data caps:


“These congestion management practices [such as throttling] are independent of, and should not be confused with, our recent announcement that we will amend the ‘excessive use’ portion of our Acceptable Use Policy, effective October 1, 2008, to establish a specific monthly data usage threshold of 250 GB per account for all residential HIS customers.  . . . That cap does not address the issue of network congestion, which results from traffic levels that vary from minute to minute.”


Yesterday, a Comcast spokesman exhibited just that confusion in defending Comcast’s actions by confidently stating “If someone’s behavior is such that it degrades the quality of service for others nearby – that’s what this threshold is meant to address.”

As Comcast recognized in 2008, but appears to have forgotten recently, data caps are a poor way to deal with network congestion.  Uploading 250 GB of data between midnight and 6 am over the course of a month should not strain a network.  However, it could trigger the cap.

Ultimately these caps punish consumers for trying to adopt new internet services, especially services based in the cloud.  As the FCC noted in the National Broadband Plan, cloud-based services can bring huge benefits to the public.  However, many cloud-based services involve transferring significant amounts of data back and forth between a user and a remote server.  As a result, data caps allow ISPs to discourage people from using cloud-based services simply because they can. 

In May, Public Knowledge and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative sent a letter to the FCC asking it to look into how ISPs set data caps, why they set data caps, and how those caps are evaluated.  Since we have not heard anything since then, today Public Knowledge, New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, and Future of Music Coalition are sending a follow up letter requesting the same thing.

As the internet becomes more useful, data usage that seemed “extreme” at one time begins to become “normal.”  If ISPs are going to be exiling consumers, the FCC and the public should at least make them explain why.

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