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Comcast Expanding Data Caps: How You Can Respond

The Comcast data caps I warned about in “Net Neutrality Controversy Overshadows U.S. Broadband Woes” (19 February 2015) are spreading. Comcast has now implemented or plans to institute data caps in parts of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Comcast has a full list of where data caps have been or will be implemented.

Unfortunately, I was subject to these data caps years before most Comcast customers. Here’s how they work: you’re allowed 300 GB of data usage every month, and are charged an additional $10 for every 50 GB used over that. (For some reason, the caps are slightly different in the Tucson area, starting as high as 600 GB, depending on which plan you subscribe to.) Comcast will let you exceed the cap three times before charging you.

Note that the data cap doesn’t apply to customers on Extreme 505 and Gigabit Pro plans, or to Comcast Business customers. I switched to a Comcast Business account for this reason.

Why is Comcast doing this? It’s definitely not about network management, as leaked Comcast documents reveal. The official reason is, “Fairness and providing a more flexible policy to our customers.” It seems instead that Comcast is trying to discourage usage of online video, and data caps aren’t restricted in the FCC’s net neutrality rules (see “Net Neutrality Passes, Eliminating Broadband Restrictions,” 26 February 2015).

How much data does online video consume? Netflix estimates 3 GB per hour for HD content and 7 GB per hour for Ultra HD content. If you stream HD content on your Apple TV, you’ll burn through your 300 GB cap in about 100 hours. That seems like a lot, but it’s only a little over 3 hours per day, and will come on top of everything else you do via your Internet connection.

There are a number of ways to monitor your home’s bandwidth usage, such as Rubbernet (see “Small Pipes and High Bills: Keeping Bandwidth Use in Check,” 23 July 2012), but the only one that counts in regards to billing is Comcast’s own usage meter application. Comcast will warn you via browser and email notices when you reach 90, 100, 110, and 125 percent of your monthly cap.

So what can you do about the data caps? Other than complaining to the FCC, not a whole lot. Here are your options:

  1. If you use well under 300 GB of data every month, there’s no need to do anything.

  2. If going over 300 GB is likely to happen only occasionally, you can just accept the extra charges when they happen.

  3. Pay Comcast an additional $30–$35 per month (about the cost of a basic cable subscription) for the Unlimited Data Option.

  4. Switch to Comcast Business, which has no data caps.

  5. Switch to a competing ISP, if available. Interestingly, Comcast is rolling out data caps to areas with uncapped gigabit Internet, like Chattanooga.

  6. Limit usage of bandwidth-heavy applications, like streaming music, streaming video, online gaming, cloud storage, and online backup.

Unfortunately, if you opt for the last option, you may be sending your household back in time to 2005. I chose to switch to Comcast Business, which required dealing with a sales representative and signing a two-year agreement, but I no longer have to worry about data caps. Note that Comcast Business is treated like a separate company from residential Comcast, so you can’t bundle Comcast Business with residential TV packages. I see this as a bonus, because it gives me the freedom to negotiate my TV service without risking interruption to my Internet service.

If you suddenly find yourself subject to these data caps, I implore you to take them seriously, and pay close attention to your usage and monthly bill. I was once surprised by a cable bill exceeding $200 before switching to Comcast Business.

With Comcast having a near-monopoly in many markets, the company can get away with implementing these data caps without fear of a significant customer exodus. Until regulators or competitors intervene, such data caps are probably where a lot of home Internet access is heading in the United States.


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Comments about Comcast Expanding Data Caps: How You Can Respond
(Comments are closed.)

John Robinson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-11-10 17:39
Thanks for your timely reply, Josh. Allowed me to understand it isn't 2005 anymore. I rent iTunes movies, play COD4 online, watch YouTube and Netflix movies, follow Periscope chats, until the Comcast memo came this morning. Can't decide what to do next.
Richard Bennett  2015-11-10 18:00
It would be useful for readers to get a feel for what kind of usage would push them out of the basic 300 GB tier, as specific as possible. If there's a place where users can get an idea of how much they're using, that would be helpful.

And BTW, this isn't a "cap," it's a tiered pricing scheme. You can use as much as you're willing to pay for.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-10 18:24
I give an overview of what to limit or avoid in option 5. If you have a cap, you really just have to pay attention to the usage meter to see where you are. I think it's safe to say that if you rely on Internet video for a major portion of your entertainment, then you should be worried.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-10 19:27
And do read Glenn's article about how to monitor and limit usage...
It's NOT a tiered pricing scheme. No matter which speed you subscribe to, you have the same cap. I pay extra for 105 Mbps down but get to use the same amount of data as someone subscribing to the 5 Mbps down option.

This is a blatant cash-grab and policy to deter cord-cutters.
John Cooper  2015-11-13 19:55
That seems very possible to me. I'm a Comcast customer for Internet, but not for cable, which must burn the company to no end.
John Gordon  2015-11-10 18:03
Josh, I think you know this, but it got left out of your essay.

The data caps aren't about raising money from you. You are just collateral damage.

The data caps are about raising money from Apple, Netflix, etc. They pay to be excluded from the data cap. If they don't pay, they die -- because Comcast users will stop using them.

In the next step Comcast will drop prices for capped accounts, but we should really call them "restricted accounts" because they will essentially limit users to whatever vendors do deals with Comcast.

I know you know this, but it need more coverage in article.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-10 18:22
It's not certain if that's what's going to happen. Content providers like Netflix do pay Comcast for bandwidth, but that's on the back end, not the customer-facing end. Then again, T-Mobile lets certain services around its cap, and cell networks are supposed to play by the same neutrality rules, so who knows?

I think this is really about defending the cable TV business model more than trying to extract more money from content providers. But it's all speculation.
Tripp Frohlichstein  2015-11-10 18:22
One of the tenants of the Charter buying Time Warner deal is to delay data caps-so those customers may benefit from at least that part of the merger-if it happens.
Ramsey French  2015-11-10 18:37
Why such high usage for Apple TV? Use 300 GB in 10 hours. That is 30 GB per hour which is over 4 times the stated amount for Netflix Ultra HD.
I noticed this also. While the idea of capped Internet is a real concern, I think 300GB is going to get everyone a lot farther than they realize. That said, we should be letting the FCC know we are worried now, rather than wait until the problem is inhibitive.
Ramsey French  2015-11-10 18:59
Without any sort of special management, my usage for several months has hovered at about 300 GB. Last month, 350 GB. My usage for 10 days of Nov projects around 350 GB. I don’t stream from Netflix or Hulu. I occasionally watch YouTube. I have a new UHD Smart TV. I can only see my usage increasing.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-10 19:30
Sorry, we dropped a zero. Should be 3 GB per hour, so you get 100 hours, not 10. Fixed now, with a comment about how that works out to 3 hours a day, assuming no other usage whatsoever. And while that may seem like a good amount, it's pretty easy to go over that, depending on what else you do, or if you have multiple users in the house.
Charlie  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-11-10 19:28
Consider yourself lucky with 300 GB. Having lived overseas for the past 15 years (Belgium, Australia), data caps are pretty standard. I started off with 10 GB per month in Belgium (but that was 2002), and now have 100 GB. If I run over, I am throttled back to old dial-up modem speeds for the rest of the month (a painful reminder of the "good old days") or I can purchase additional capacity at $5 per GB. One learns to adjust to what is available.
Gregory Glockner  2015-11-11 17:19
I have done bandwidth monitoring for years via my router. Only a few things take huge amounts of bandwidth: video and operating system installs. For traditional computers, you can reduce bandwidth for operating system installation by downloading it once and copying it to all the computers you need. (This doesn't work for iOS, though the downloads are much smaller). Video is a problem, and I'm sure that Comcast and others are using these caps to deter cord cutting. I don't think Comcast is evil per se, they are simply trying to protect their bottom line.
Jack Ziegler  2015-11-16 15:54
Well, thats evil enough for me. No matter how you cut it they are screwing the end user. In most areas of the country the ISP's have no competition That is what is evil. The free market concept doesn't work with out competition, greed takes over.
David Weintraub  2015-11-16 21:50
Unlimited data is one of the reasons why AOL took off. The other players like CompuServe metered access. You had to be careful how much time you spent on line. I had CompuServe which would allow me to use Sabre to book my own flights. I used it twice. The text interface was too difficult to read, and the cost was too high. I went back to travel agents. AOL removed data caps (and was the first online service to offer true Internet access too). Because of that, AOL offered other services beyond basic BBS. You could download video and pictures. This made AOL the biggest of the computer networks and brought hundreds of thousands to use computers. Comcast is bring us back to the 1980s with data caps.
Andrew James  2015-11-23 05:56
Another way to reduce data for multi Apple device homes is to implement OS X Server (if you have a suitable Mac lying around). I paid the AUS$30 to simply utilise the Server caching service. This reduces traffic for iOS apps/installs, Mac Apps Store apps/installs, and iTunes downloads.

This has been covered by TidBITS in recent months (so do a search from the home page) and there is even a Take Control book about OS X Server, but it really is simple to implement.
Andrew James  2015-11-23 05:56
Another way to reduce data for multi Apple device homes is to implement OS X Server (if you have a suitable Mac lying around). I paid the AUS$30 to simply utilise the Server caching service. This reduces traffic for iOS apps/installs, Mac Apps Store apps/installs, and iTunes downloads.

This has been covered by TidBITS in recent months (so do a search from the home page) and there is even a Take Control book about OS X Server, but it really is simple to implement.