The following stories have been tagged bandwidth cap ← Back to All Tags

Data Cap Problem Grows...And Grows...And Grows

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article (requires subscription) chronicles the increasingly problematic effect of data caps on the quality of residential subscribers' Internet access experience.

Also known as a bandwidth cap, a data cap is a monthly bandwidth usage limit Internet Service Providers (ISPs) sometimes impose on subscribers at their standard monthly rates. While some ISPs charge customers more for exceeding their monthly bandwidth caps, in other cases ISPs may even cut off a customer’s service completely.

The problem is also harming companies like Netflix and Sling TV who are losing customers who can’t justify paying for a high capacity video streaming service that’s only available until they hit their data caps partway through the month. In response, Netflix lowered the video quality for users on ISP networks that use data caps as a way to help them avoid the limitations. The plan worked, but in the process Netflix angered customers, who blamed both the ISPs and the streaming service for the lowered video quality.

It's Not All About The Money

The problem goes beyond the extra fees charged to customers who use a lot of data. The WSJ article cites two Internet users who’d like to join the growing number of “cord cutters” who are dropping television service for Internet-based video. As one man put it:

“I wouldn’t have regular TV if not for the data cap,” he says. “Comcast has got me by the throat.”

Another added:

“I was planning to cut the cord when my DirecTV contract is up,” he says. “This is essentially a ploy to keep people from cutting cable in my opinion.”

An increasing number of subscriber complaints and suspicions about the accuracy of measuring bandwidth usage heighten concerns.

Feds Take Notice

The Government Accountability Office released a report at the end of 2014 expressing their concern about ISPs abusing the use of data caps. At the time, the FCC said that they had not received enough complaints about the problem to merit action. In 2015, as this new WSJ article notes, the FCC received an unprecedented number of complaints about data caps. The problem is only getting worse as household bandwidth usage continues to grow.

To Cap Or Not To Cap? That Is The Question

Providers like Comcast will sometimes offer unlimited usage for an additional monthly fee. Recently, both Comcast and AT&T announced they will raise data caps; Comcast will also increase the price of unlimited usage to $50 per month. Experts speculate the move is a reaction to FCC limits imposed on the Time Warner Cable/Charter Communications merger. From a recent POTs and PANs article:

First, the FCC just required that one of the conditions for Charter’s purchase of Time Warner is that they impose no data caps on customers for seven years. In making that statement the FCC said that they had serious concerns about ISP data caps if those same ISPs also owned video programming, like Time Warner. In such cases, the ISP imposing data caps is favoring their own content over Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu delivered over the Internet.

Seventy percent of all homes in the U.S. have access to one or fewer ISPs offering service that meets the FCC's definition of high-speed Internet access - 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Data caps are a natural result of the control incumbent ISPs have in markets with insufficient competition.

"Inconsistent With Its Mission"

Limits on bandwidth usage are generally not a problem for municipal network users as publicly owned networks are known to reject the use of data caps. A statement from Vermont's EC Fiber reflected a common philosophy:

An uncapped internet environment encourages entrepreneurs and economic growth. Despite the trend toward instituting data caps among commercial internet providers, ECFiber believes that caps are inconsistent with its mission as a community network. An unconstrained online environment frees businesses and individuals to be creative and innovative.

Speeds Up, Prices Steady (or Down!) With EC Fiber

The East-Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (EC Fiber) recently announced plans to increase speeds across tiers with no increase in prices.

Changes will look like this:

  • "Basic" will increase from 7 to 10 Megabits per second (Mbps)
  • "Standard" will increase from 20 to 25 Mbps
  • "Ultra" will double from 50 to 100
  • The new "Wicked" plan will increase from 100 to 500 AND will include a price decrease. (Current subscribers to the Wicked tier who pay for 400 Mbps will also get the bump up to 500 Mbps and the price decrease.)

All speeds from EC Fiber are symmetrical so both download and upload are equally fast.

Self-Funded at the Start

Twenty-four communities in Vermont make up the consortium which began in 2009. The towns joined forces to deploy a regional Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network when large corporate incumbent providers chose to invest elsewhere. Slow DSL was the best option in the area and local residents, businesses, and local institutions needed better connectivity.

Individual investors funded the initial network buildout but last year a new Vermont law took affect that allows towns to create "communications union districts." EC Fiber now functions under such a governance structure and organization officials expect to more easily attract larger investors and borrow at lower interest rates. EC Fiber hopes to answer requests to expand beyond its 24 member towns.

Characteristic Altruism

Increasing speeds with little or no rate increases is typical of publicly owned network communities. Tullahoma's LightTUBe, Chattanooga's EPB Fiber, and Lafayette's LUS Fiber have done it, often with little or no fanfare.

Publicly owned networks are also known to shun data caps, another tool big players like Comcast use to squeeze every penny out of subscribers. EC Fiber summed up why data caps are inconsistent with the publicly owned network philosophy:

An uncapped internet environment encourages entrepreneurs and economic growth. Despite the trend toward instituting data caps among commercial internet providers, ECFiber believes that caps are inconsistent with its mission as a community network. An unconstrained online environment frees businesses and individuals to be creative and innovative.

Local Governments and Internet Access Debate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 185

For this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, we are trying a discussion/debate format between myself, Christopher Mitchell, and Ryan Radia, Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. We have debated previously and prefer a style of seeking to flesh out the argument rather than merely trying to win it.

We start by discussing the role of incumbents in limiting competition and what might be done about it. Next we move to bandwidth caps. On both of those points, we have pretty significant disagreement.

We finish by discussing the role of conduit and poles, where we have some agreement. If you like this show, please do let us know and we'll try to have more in this style.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

New Report on Bandwidth Caps From Open Technology Institute

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) at the New America Foundation recently released its report on bandwidth caps. "Artificial Scarcity: How Data Caps Harm Consumers and Innovation" is the latest warning about an issue with grave implications. The PDF is now available to download

Last November, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] with serious comments on how ISPs might abuse their power through bandwidth caps. In that report, the GAO strongly suggested the FCC take action.

This report by Danielle Kehl and Patrick Lucey further examines how this profit grabbing technique from the big ISPs impacts consumer decisions and usage. 

From the OTI press release:

In this paper, we examine the growth and impact of usage-based pricing and data caps on wired and mobile broadband services in the United States. We analyze the financial incentive that Internet service providers (ISPs) have to implement these usage limits and discuss research that demonstrates how these policies affect consumer behavior. In particular, we explain how data caps can make it harder for consumers to make informed choices; decrease the adoption and use of existing and new online services; and undermine online security.

It is also increasingly clear that data caps have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority populations as well as groups like telecommuters and students. In the conclusion, we urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), particularly as the new Open Internet Order goes into effect, to open up a serious inquiry into whether data caps are an acceptable business practice.  

In addition to their own data and conclusions, Kehl and Lucey provide information to many other resources that tackle the implications of bandwidth caps. As consumers' need for bandwidth increases with their changing Internet habits, this topic will only become more pressing.

GAO Report Warns of Potential for ISPs to Abuse Data Caps

Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report warning of the possibility and potential consequences of ISPs instituting data caps in their fixed line plans. In effect, this could mean applying something like the tiered service charges based on usage levels that we see in the mobile sector to broadband connections in the home or office. But whereas the vast majority of Americans have a reasonable range of choice between several major and minor carriers for mobile service, the GAO notes that the same is not true in the market for broadband, which could lead to ISPs using data caps (or usage-based pricing (UBP) in their parlance) in various harmful ways:

...providers facing limited competition could use UBP [usage-based pricing] to increase profits, potentially resulting in negative effects, including increased prices, reductions in content accessed, and increased threats to network security.

The GAO has provided the FCC with a copy of its report, and urged that the agency take action on the issue, including systematically tracking information on how many consumers are impacted by fixed providers instituting data caps and developing a voluntary code of conduct for the industry. According to Ars Technica, the FCC has taken a skeptical stance on the issue, despite Chairman Tom Wheeler’s outspoken concerns on the lack of competition in the fixed broadband market. Pointing to the small number of consumer complaints on the issue so far, the FCC asserted that “it is unclear that any action is needed at this time.”

Usage caps do not just affect sophisticated users with bandwidth-intensive jobs or hobbies that require them to transfer large design files or generate and share multimedia content. This has the potential to affect kids and adults doing homework or taking classes online, people who hope to cut the cord from traditional television providers, and telecommuters. From the GAO study:

Participants also expressed concern about difficulty tracking the wide range of devices accessing their fixed data allowance and that fixed UBP may negatively affect students, people working from home, and those with lower socio-economic status. 

Perhaps just as importantly as the specific levels, the existence of a cap or usage-based pricing policy creates an atmosphere where people think of data as a finite resource that should be used only sparingly, even if they may not be directly affected by specific limits:

Participants exhibited confusion over data consumption—for example thinking that low-data activities like online shopping consumed large amounts of data. 

These kinds of policies are in direct contrast with the connectivity environment we should be working to create - plentiful, cheap bandwidth for as many people as possible. 

Paid Prioritization Threat Reinforces Value of Community Networks

Recent reports out of the FCC say that it will allow ISPs to create and sell "fast lanes" of Internet access to the companies with sufficiently deep pockets to afford them. While some people argue over whether this violates network neutrality principles or not, the more important point is that most communities have no control over how the networks on which they depend are operated.

The big ISPs, like Comcast and AT&T, are focused on maximizing revenue for their shareholders. It is why they exist. So they will want to make the fast lanes as appealing as possible, which in turn means making providers like Netflix unable to deliver a high quality product without paying special tolls to Comcast.

What does that mean for you? It means you should expect to see the big providers slow their already anemic pace of investing in higher capacity connections in favor of pushing content providers into the paid prioritization schemes. It also means that you may have to start paying more for Netflix or Hulu, where the additional money goes to the ISP you already overpay for comparatively lousy service.

A range of ISPs, from privately owned Sonic.Net in California to Chattanooga's Electric Power Board right up to Google have demonstrated that they can deliver a "fast lane" to everyone. This fight over paid prioritization is nothing more than the big cable and telephone companies trying to increase their profits while minimizing needed investments in higher quality service to everyone.

Unless you live in an area with a community-owned network. Unlike the big providers with a fidiciary responsibility to distant shareholders, community owned networks are directly accountable to the community. Their mission is to maximize local benefits, not extracting as much wealth from households as possible. ISPs like Sonic also have much more reasonable policies but over time these privately owned ISPs are vulnerable to being bought by the big national providers.

Community owned networks are far less likely to engage in paid prioritization because it adds no value for subscribers in the community. In fact, the worse the big cable companies act in terms of ripping off subscribers, the more valuable community owned networks become by providing a better level of service.

Another example of this is monthly data caps - the big cable companies have been "experimenting" with them in several markets in the south but always in areas where the community has not built an alternative option. Community networks not only offer a much better option to the community, they change the behavior of incumbents who are accustomed to operated in non-competitive environments.

The final benefit of community owned networks is that if the federal regulators fall down on the job AND your community-owned networks engages in behavior that hurts subscribers, there is a democratic process for rectifying that, whether in elections for the city council or coop board.

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

For the second time this year, one of the major defenders of the cable and telephone companies has admitted that DSL cannot provide the Internet access we need as a nation. This admission validates our research as well as that of Susan Crawford and others that show most Americans are effectively stuck with a cable monopoly.

On April 7, 2014, the Diane Rehm show hosted another discussion on telecommunications policy with guests that included Jeffrey Eisenach, the Director of the Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

During that show, Eisenach stated, "The vast majority of Europeans still only have DSL service available, which we in the United States consider really almost an obsolete technology now."

Interestingly, Eisenach and others have repeatedly claimed that there is no market failure in the US - that we have plenty of choices. But most Americans have to choose between what most now admit is an obsolete DSL product and cable. Eisenach would add 4G LTE as another competitor, but as we have noted many times, the average household would have to pay hundreds of dollars per month to use their LTE connection as a replacement for DSL or cable.

The average household uses something like 40-55 GB of data per month. Given the bandwidth caps from LTE providers, the overage charges quickly result in a bill of approximately $500 or more depending on the plan. This is why the overwhelming majority of the market uses mobile wireless as a complement, not substitute to wired networks.

We are left with one conclusion: there is no meaningful competition or choice for most of us in the residential telecommunications market. And no real prospect of a choice either as the cable companies only grow stronger.

This is not the first time Eisenach admitted that DSL is insufficient for our needs. Back in January, on Diane's show, he again used Europe's dependence on DSL as evidence that it was falling behind: "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Even those who only want the private sector to deliver services are starting to admit that the existing providers are failing us. What more do communities need to take an active role in ensuring their needs are met?

Danger of "Sponsored Data" via AT&T, Others

AT&T has announced a program that has put many of us on edge - "Sponsored Data." As an example, I may have a 500 MB cap on my monthly AT&T plan, but Facebook could pay AT&T so that its content does not count against my cap. Both Free Press and Public Knowledge have taken strong stands against the program, arguing that the FCC should not allow it. And the L.A. Times explains that it won't save consumers any money.

But those who defend the program argue that it is nothing more than a modern day 1-800 number, where the other party pays for the call. I find the argument unpersuasive.

For decades, 800 numbers were a fraction of calls made. Most phone calls have been local in nature, so even if 800 numbers were a substantial amount of long distance calls, it didn't really impact how we used our phones. By contrast, here AT&T will be targeting the most common applications on the Internet, further centralizing power among those with deep pockets to build a moat around their services and hamper innovation.

Additionally, we had unlimited local calling in combination with tolled long distance. If all calls were tolled individually, the 800 number would be a more appropriate comparison. All data counts against the monthly cap except for companies that pay to exempt their data. So if you have a choice between two video streaming services, which would you pick? The one that runs up your AT&T bill more or the one that doesn't?

Finally, with this "pay to play" program, the big wireless carriers have a strong incentive to keep data caps low because if companies like Facebook, Google, and others are willing to pick up the tab.

The whole approach may harm innovation in ways that were spelled out quite well on AVC:

Entrepreneur: I plan to launch a better streaming music service. It leverages the data on what you and your friends currently listen to, combines that with the schedule of new music launches and acts that are touring in your city in the coming months and creates playlists of music that you should be listening to in order to find new acts to listen to and go see live.

VC: Well since Spotify, Beats, and Apple have paid all the telcos so that their services are free on the mobile networks, we are concerned that new music services like yours will have a hard time getting new users to use them because the data plan is so expensive. We like you and the idea very much, but we are going to have to pass.

This isn't the make-believe world of Chicago economists. It is a world where making it big means finding investors - and investors rarely want to go after massive corporations with moats around their products. This is the same reason investors rarely see any prospect of making a quick buck by competing against Comcast.

Wireless Internet Access Fact Sheet

Wireless networks have been incredibly successful, from home Wi-Fi networks to the billions of mobile devices in use across the planet. So successful, in fact, that some have come to believe we no longer need wires.

We developed this fact sheet to clarify some misconceptions about what wireless Internet networks are capable of and the importance of fiber optic cables in building better wireless networks as our bandwidth needs continue to increase.

This fact sheet defines important terms, offers some key points clarifying common misconceptions, compares 4G and 3G wireless to wired cable, and more. We also include references to additional resources for those who want to dig deeper.

Download our Wireless Internet 101 Fact Sheet Here [pdf].

If you want updates about stories relating to community Internet networks, we send out one email each week with recent stories we covered here at MuniNetworks.org. Sign up here.

Cox Discourages Internet Use That Competes with Core Cable Product

Another story of frustration as cable companies try to discourage Internet use on their last generation networks.

An article earlier this month in StopTheCap! tells the story of the John Heeley family, long time Cox customers and avid Netflix fans. The Heeley's received a letter from Cox warning them about their "excessive Internet usage." They were more than a little annoyed, considering they fork over $2,400 a year to the cable giant provider so called to express their displeasure:

Heeley’s fiancé Shelley was angry after realizing just how much the couple already spends with Cox.

“I called them on the phone and the first thing they want to do is get you to upgrade and spend even more money with them,” she tells Stop the Cap! “They tried to vaguely threaten our service if we continued to ‘overuse the Internet’ and suggested we cut back or cancel Netflix which they think is the reason we went over the limit.”

Shelley says she was born at night, but not last night.

“How convenient they want you to stop using Netflix, Amazon, or other online video services that their cable TV competes with,” Shelley says. “It is unfair competition.”

Shelley requested a Cox supervisor and threatened the company right back, telling Cox if they sent one more letter like that, the Heeley family would take their business elsewhere.

“He told us quietly we could ignore the letter and any future letters and they will add a note on our account,” Shelley tells us. “He confided they have customers going over the limit all the time and the letter is really about educating customers about usage.”