We’ve made the case several times now that Comcast’s data cap scheme is absolutely horrible for the open Internet, particular since it’s decided to exempt its own Stream TV service from any usage limits. Essentially, Comcast is creating its own separate Internet in which its own TV streaming services don’t face the limitations that rival services such as Netflix, Hulu or Sling TV have to face thanks to Comcast’s usage-based billing. Writing over at Medium, Harvard Law School professor and longtime cable industry critic Susan Crawford explains that the best way to combat Comcast’s data caps isn’t through additional regulation but through more competition.
The big trick, of course, is how to actually make the market for home broadband more competitive. Crawford’s suggestion is to have governments across the country build fiber networks that would let last-mile providers wholesale Internet access.
“If we upgraded to competitive wholesale publicly overseen fiber optic networks all over the country, we could leave the cable industry and its ongoing destructive shenanigans behind,” she writes. “(Without expensive upgrades, the cable guys can’t provide the upload capacity that fiber can.) Yes, it would be initially expensive to do this. But so was the railroad system. So were the highways.”
Given how dysfunctional the federal government has become, it’s impossible to imagine an initiative like this being done competently on a nationwide basis. However, we’ve already seen municipal fiber projects enacted with varying degrees of success across the U.S., so there is precedent for doing projects like this locally.
The private sector has to be part of the solution as well, whether it comes from companies like Google with its Google Fiber initiative or smaller ISPs like Sonic.net that have launched their own Internet services that deliver speeds up to 1Gbps. The problem is that Google Fiber and Sonic both have limited reach and Google has said that it’s only going to build out Fiber in places where it makes economic sense to do so. That means without some kind of municipal broadband option, cities like my hometown of Boston are stuck using Comcast for the time being.
So it sounds like if we’re going to have more competition for broadband services, it’s going to come one market at a time and at a staggered pace. In the meantime, Comcast will be able to slap all of its customers with data caps and hurt competition in the online video market. Comcast’s data cap scheme may fall apart under competitive pressure in the future but in the near term there’s very little that will likely stop it.