FCC Avoids Easy Questions on Data Caps

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Imagine your internet connection has a cap.  You get an alert that you are getting close to the cap, but the numbers do not feel right.  As a sophisticated user, you start measuring your own data usage and find that your ISP appears to be overestimating your usage by 20-30%.  Furthermore, when confronted with the discrepancy, your ISP tells you that the way they measure your usage is proprietary – a secret.  When faced with such a ridiculous situation your first instinct may be to turn to the Federal Communications Commission to get you some clarity.  Unfortunately, since the FCC has spent the past few years studiously avoiding the issue of data caps, that instinct would get you nowhere.

Of course, this is no hypothetical.  Slashdot contributor Soulskill had just this problem with AT&T, and just this instinct.  It would have been great to be able to hop into the comments and tell him to file a complaint with the FCC to get this all resolved.  But that would have been a waste of everyone’s time because there is nowhere for that complaint to go.

We have been urging the FCC to seriously engage with data caps for well over a year.  We have sent multiple letters, written multiple whitepapers, and even filed a petition to enforce merger conditions, all designed to convince the FCC that data caps are having a major impact on the development of broadband.  So far, the closest thing that the FCC has done is to include a question about data caps in their Notice of Inquiry for their upcoming Broadband Progress Report (don’t worry, we filed in that too).

That is a start, but only just.  Traditionally, we have pushed the FCC to ask basic questions about data caps: What is their purpose?  How are they set?  Once they are set, what would cause them to change?  Even these basic questions, which the FCC has been unwilling to ask and ISPs have been unable to answer, assumed that the measurements of data usage were reasonably accurate.

As sites like DSLReports have been reporting for some time, and Soulskill’s experience highlights today, that assumption is no longer reasonable.  If ISPs cannot be trusted to measure data usage, and lack confidence in their own measurement techniques to the point where they refuse to open them up to outside inspection, there is no reason that we should have confidence in anything they say in relation to data caps. 

It is well past time for the FCC to engage in a serious examination of data caps.  They have already taken steps to make sure that ISPs deliver the speeds they promise consumers – this is a logical next step.  If the FCC is afraid or unable to ask ISPs the seemingly simple questions we have proposed in the past, maybe they can start with an even easier one: why should we trust your data measurements at all?

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