As Broadband Usage Caps Expand, Complaints To The FCC Skyrocket
from the pay-more-for-the-same-service dept
For several years now, broadband providers have been taking full advantage of the lack of competition in the broadband market by expanding usage caps and overage fees. More recently, companies like AT&T, Comcast and Suddenlink have taken this practice one step further by charging users a $10 to $35 per month surcharge if consumers want to avoid usage caps. In other words, consumers are paying more money than ever for a service that costs less and less to provide, thanks again to limited competition in the broader broadband market.
And while companies like Comcast have used the same approach seen in the boiling frog metaphor to slowly expand its usage cap “trials” and hope nobody notices, people are definitely noticing the rising temperatures. The Wall Street Journal filed an FOIA request with the FCC, and has found that consumer complaints about broadband caps have been skyrocketing over the last year:
“Fearful of crossing data limits, some customers say they are canceling the streaming services, including Netflix, Sling TV and Sony PlayStation Vue. Consumer complaints to the Federal Communications Commission about data caps rose to 7,904 in the second half of 2015 from 863 in the first half, according to records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal under the Freedom of Information Act. As of mid-April, this year?s total was 1,463.”
Though we’ve warned about this for years, the Journal almost-but-not-quite comes to the realization that usage caps have nothing to do with congestion or financial necessity, and everything to do with hamstringing Internet video and protecting legacy TV revenues. Companies like SlingTV and Netflix make that abundantly clear in their comments to the Journal, though Comcast clings to a familiar narrative in trying to justify why it’s charging more money for the same service:
“Comcast says its aim is to ensure the heaviest users are paying more than lighter ones, since 50% of its bandwidth is consumed by just 10% of its customers. Comcast set up the trials to show ?people who are consuming the most should carry more of the bill rather than raise everybody?s bill by the same amount,? says Marcien Jenckes, executive vice president of consumer services at Comcast.”
But we’ve long noted how that justification is nonsense. The cable industry itself admitted years ago that congestion had nothing to do with usage caps. Comcast’s own leaked support documents and comments from company engineers have also acknowledged as much. Meanwhile, if a small fraction of your customers are consuming an “excessive” amount of bandwidth (and ISPs never provide hard data on this front), you could easily push them to business-class tiers without having to impose a draconian and confusing new pricing paradigm on your entire customer base.
No, Comcast is imposing usage caps to simultaneously cash in on, and thwart, Internet video. Granted the company can’t just come out and admit that, so we often see flimsy claims that imposing huge new rate hikes on its entire userbase is about fairness, even if Comcast’s cost to deliver broadband services remains fixed or declining. Not too surprisingly, Comcast tells the Journal that the company’s a gift to the Internet and would never, ever behave anti-competitively:
“We everyday contribute to the use and the growth of the Internet,? Mr. Jenckes says. ?There is absolutely no anticompetitive belief or objective.”
The reality is that when it comes to complaints about caps, we’re only starting to see the tip of the consumer annoyance iceberg. Not only are companies expanding usage caps, companies like Comcast are now exempting their own content from these caps — a fantastic way to give their otherwise underwhelming Netflix alternatives an unfair advantage in the market. Other companies like AT&T are using usage caps to attack cord cutters in another way, by socking them with overage fees unless they sign up for traditional TV services they may no longer even want (something AT&T tells the Journal is just a “really compelling” offer).
And despite the soaring complaints, and the broad anti-competitive implications of such arbitrary limits, the FCC has remained largely mute about usage caps — often supporting the industry narrative that this is just “creative pricing experimentation.” The hope at the FCC has been that its policies to encourage broadband competition will make a specific crackdown on usage caps unnecessary, but so far it certainly hasn’t worked that way. Though less talked about, it’s also a problem that the FCC has failed to ensure that ISP usage meters are accurate; as a result they often aren’t, with some consumers being billed for usage when their modem is off or the power is out.
Broadband competition isn’t going to magically fix itself, and outside efforts like Google Fiber or community broadband are only helping a fraction of the market. As such, complaints submitted to FCC systems will only grow as more and more consumers realize that usage caps and overage fees are a giant con perpetrated on an already annoyed and captive market.