So we already know from Comcast’s own internal documents that its data caps have nothing to do with managing congested networks. Instead, the company is insisting that these new caps are all about “fairness” — that is, customers who use less data shouldn’t have to pay more per month to subsidize all the “data hogs” and their fancy-pants BitTorrent streams. It’s just like Comcast to always look out for the little guy, isn’t it?
Well, no, it’s not. And you won’t be surprised to know that its data cap policies have absolutely nothing to do with fairness.
If Comcast really cared about being “fair” to people who don’t use a lot of data, you would think it would give them significant price cuts instead of just charging the “data hogs” more for their usage. It isn’t, of course. Instead it keeps prices the same when it converts formerly unlimited services into capped plans and then charges customers an extra $30 per month if they want to get out of having usage caps.
Even if Comcast doesn’t want to cut broadband prices for people who use less data, it could come up with other ways of making things “fairer” for these users. For instance, it could implement a rollover data scheme like the one T-Mobile has pioneered in the mobile world. Or it could do what Google’s Project Fi is doing and actually refund users for unused data every month. Yes, Comcast has a “flexible data” plan in which it pays you back a whole $5 if you don’t go over a 5GB limit every month, but such a limit for home Internet service is so laughably small that I can’t imagine many informed consumers actually taking them up on it.
Here’s the thing: Comcast is implementing these caps on a wide basis just as the market for online video streaming services is really starting to take off. Comcast says just 8% of its customers use 300GB of data per month but it’s smart enough to know that this percentage is going to increase significantly when more people start streaming Netflix on their 4K TVs and as more people download games onto their PCs and consoles instead of buying and installing discs.
As one fed up Comcast customer recently observed, these caps are “just low enough to punish streaming,” which is surely not a coincidence. By setting up data limits that are just ahead of the curve when it comes to future technologies, Comcast is setting itself up to be the gatekeeper for the kinds of applications that we can use. This gives it the power to try to squeeze companies like Netflix to pay for “sponsored data” so that their customers aren’t hit with regular overage fees or, if that scheme fails, just get customers to pay progressively more money for broadband since they likely don’t have any other options for broadband services in their areas.
Will this sort of thing harm technological innovation? You bet it will, but Comcast has never been a fan of innovation except when it comes to concocting more innovative ways to squeeze more money from customers’ wallets each month.