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:
If you use well under 300 GB of data every month, there’s no need to do anything.
If going over 300 GB is likely to happen only occasionally, you can just accept the extra charges when they happen.
Pay Comcast an additional $30–$35 per month (about the cost of a basic cable subscription) for the Unlimited Data Option.
Switch to Comcast Business, which has no data caps.
Switch to a competing ISP, if available. Interestingly, Comcast is rolling out data caps to areas with uncapped gigabit Internet, like Chattanooga.
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.