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Comcast’s 1.2TB monthly data cap is coming to 12 more states and the District of Columbia starting January 2021. The unpopular policy was already enforced in most of Comcast’s 39-state US territory over the past few years, and the upcoming expansion will for the first time bring the cap to every market in Comcast’s territory.
Comcast will be providing some “courtesy months” in which newly capped customers can exceed 1.2TB without penalty, so the first overage charges for these customers will be assessed for data usage in the April 2021 billing period.
Comcast’s data cap has been imposed since 2016 in 27 of the 39 states in Comcast’s cable territory. The cap-less parts of Comcast’s network include Northeastern states where the cable company faces competition from Verizon’s un-capped FiOS fiber-to-the-home broadband service.
But last week, an update to Comcast’s website said that the cap is coming to Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The cap is also coming to parts of Virginia and Ohio where it wasn’t already implemented. In all, Comcast has nearly 28 million residential Internet customers.
We viewed the updated language on Comcast’s website Friday. Comcast appears to have taken the update off that webpage, but a Comcast spokesperson confirmed to Ars today that the data cap is going nationwide in January 2021 and said that notifications are being sent to customers in their bills. The updated language from the Comcast website was also preserved in a news article by Stop the Cap today.
Courtesy months for newly capped users
Comcast’s update said customers in newly capped markets “can take the months of January and February to understand how the new 1.2TB Internet Data Plan affects them without additional charges. We’ll credit your bill for any additional data usage charges over 1.2TB during those months if you’re not on an unlimited data plan.”
That would delay enforcement until March, but Comcast also provides all customers with one courtesy month in each 12-month period. Newly capped customers could thus start getting overage charges for their April 2021 usage.
“Comcast is certain to be criticized for expanding data caps in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as the number of cases explodes in the United States, pushing more people than ever to work from home,” Stop the Cap wrote.
The data-cap expansion will likely result in more disputes between Comcast and customers. Comcast has always said its data meter is accurate but has had to correct occasional mistakes, and customers who suddenly face overage fees often suspect the meter is wrong. Comcast provides no way for customers to independently verify the meter readings, and there’s no government regulation of broadband-data meters to ensure their accuracy.
Unlimited data options
Comcast’s overage charges are $10 for each additional block of 50GB, up to a maximum of $100 each month. Customers can avoid overage charges by spending an extra $30 a month on unlimited data or $25 for the “xFi Complete” plan that includes unlimited data and the rental cost for Comcast’s xFi gateway modem and router.
Comcast is trying to give customers in newly capped markets an incentive to upgrade to unlimited data before the caps actually go into effect. It’s a bit convoluted: customers who sign up for unlimited data in December or January will have the $30 unlimited-data charge waived until June, the Comcast spokesperson told Ars. People who sign up for unlimited data in February or March would be charged the extra $30 fee starting in April.
Comcast is doing something similar with the $25 xFi Complete add-on, which essentially combines two charges into one—a $14-per-month charge for Comcast’s gateway and another $11 to get unlimited data. Customers who upgrade to the unlimited-data version of xFi Complete in December or January will not be charged the extra $11 until June, the spokesperson said. Customers who sign up later will pay the charge starting in April.
Comcast says cap is for “super users”
The Comcast spokesperson defended the data-cap expansion, saying that “a very small number of customers drive a disproportionately large volume of traffic,” as “5 percent of residential customers make up more than 20 percent of our network usage.”
About 95 percent of Comcast residential customers use less than 1.2TB a month, with the median customer at 308GB, the spokesperson said. The cap is “for those super users, a very small subset of our customers,” and “for those super users we have unlimited options,” the spokesperson said.
But Comcast customers would likely use more data if they didn’t face caps. New research by OpenVault, a vendor that sells a data-usage tracking platform to ISPs, found that 9.4 percent of US customers with unlimited data plans exceeded 1TB a month and that 1.2 percent exceeded 2TB in Q3 2020. For customers with data caps, 8.3 percent exceeded 1TB and 0.9 percent exceeded 2TB.
Comcast did not provide a clear answer as to why the company decided that now is the right time to expand the data cap to more states. The spokesperson said Comcast has spent $12 billion to expand its network since 2017 and that increasing capacity helped the network perform well even as the COVID pandemic caused big increases in residential broadband usage. But Comcast reduced capital spending on its cable division in 2019 and reduced cable-division capital spending again in the first nine months of 2020.
Data caps generate revenue for ISPs
It’s been clear for years that Comcast’s data caps are a revenue-generating system rather than a congestion management tool. When Comcast was enforcing a 300GB monthly cap in 2015, a Comcast engineering executive said imposing the monthly data limit was a business decision, not one driven by technical necessity.
Monthly data caps are not useful for managing congestion in real time, since they apply only to a customer’s monthly total rather than actually addressing the impact heavy users might have on other customers at peak usage times. Comcast used to use a congestion-management system to slow down the heaviest Internet users, but turned the system off a few years ago, saying its network was strong enough that it was no longer needed.
Comcast began imposing the data cap and overage charges in some states in 2012. The cap was originally 300GB and was raised to 1TB in 2016.
Comcast waived the data cap for a few months during the pandemic, then raised it from 1TB to 1.2TB when it was reimposed in July. Despite the temporary data-cap waiver, Comcast boasted that its network was able to handle the pandemic-fueled usage.
One small ISP in Maryland, Antietam Broadband, decided to permanently remove data caps after finding that increased usage during the pandemic didn’t harm the network. Antietam also said that customers working at home switched to “broadband packages that more accurately reflected their broadband needs.” As Antietam’s experience shows, heavy Internet users often pay for faster speeds, ensuring that ISPs get more revenue from heavy users even when there’s no data cap.
As Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told Ars earlier this year, the pandemic showed that data caps aren’t necessary to manage network traffic. “Data caps have always been about socking consumers with extra fees to pad Big Cable’s profit margins,” Wyden said at the time. “Even after the COVID-19 emergency passes, ISPs should do away with unnecessary data caps.”