I’ve railed against low data caps in this blog a number of times over the last few years. Low data caps stop some households from partaking in the basic web services that most of us take for granted. The FCC is now being prodded to confront this issue since earlier this month Netflix filed at the FCC asking to eliminate data caps.
In that filing Netflix argued that web-based video is now an expected service for households. They threw out a new statistic I’ve never seen before and they say that the average household now uses 300 gigabits per month in download capacity just to satisfy their TV viewing habits. And they warn that that level of bandwidth demand is growing rapidly, particularly with the growing popularity of 4K video.
They argue quite correctly that households with low data caps can’t afford to watch video like everybody else. Our firm works a lot in rural America and I have talked to numerous households who tell me the same thing. Households with low data caps (like those found with satellite broadband) closely monitor and ration broadband usage and they say that lack of availability to the web is one of the major points of contention in their household. There are many horror stories where kids will watch a lot of video or do online gaming and the parents then get a gigantic monthly bill for the usage.
It’s hard to know where the FCC stands on data caps. Last year when they were getting flooded with complaints about Comcast’s data cap trials, the staff there made numerous statements that made you believe that data caps were under investigation. But then Comcast raised the data caps to a terabit and the issue faded away. More recently it seems that the FCC sees data caps as a pricing issue – something they told ISPs they would never get involved with.
But there are still numerous ISPs that enforce data caps and the issue is still very much alive. Certainly the most abusive form of data caps is with cellphone data, and our wireless data prices in this country are nearly the most expensive broadband in the world.
The data cap issue is going to get new legs as the big telcos build rural broadband using CAF II funds. The FCC in that docket said that networks built with CAF II funding could not have data caps any smaller than 150 GB. And so we expect most of the CAF companies to use the 150 GB cap. There are going to be millions of rural homes that get their first broadband only to find out that they can’t use it like they expected to watch video. I am sure a lot of them are going to get a shock when they see their first bill with huge data overages higher than the 150 GB cap.
The FCC is under no obligation to respond to the Netflix complaint. The FCC has always had the freedom to choose the issues it wants to investigate, and so they could file this complaint away and do nothing. They also have the ability to open a rulemaking to gather more facts on the issue, but would still have no obligation to act. There are numerous rulemakings and dockets at the agency that have been open for years and that may never be resolved.
But data caps are discriminatory to rural and poor customers. The big ISPs have placed severe data caps on Lifeline data connections, and through CAF II rules will do the same for rural customers. Since most of the country still has no choice among ISPs it can be devastating if the only ISP available imposes draconian data caps.
I certainly hope the FCC takes up the issue. They now have the authority to do so under Title II regulation. We’ve known for years that this is not a network issue for most ISPs. And that means that ISPs with data caps view them as a backdoor way to increase rates. They want to advertise cheap starter rates but then use data caps to get a lot of money out of customers at the end of the month. I think the FCC needs to talk to rural families that spend over $500 per month on cellular data just so that their kids can do homework.