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