AT&T Lets Users Avoid Broadband Caps…If They Use AT&T's Own Streaming Service

from the net-neutrali-wha? dept

So we’ve long noted how broadband usage caps on fixed-line broadband connections are bullshit. While ISPs used to insist that such limits were necessary to manage “congestion,” they’ve long since been forced to back off those justifications after analysis and their own internal documents showed this wasn’t true. For giants like AT&T and Comcast, monthly broadband caps serve two purposes: one, they provide flimsy cover allowing ISPs to further raise rates on what are already some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. Two, they can be used anti-competitively to give themselves an unfair advantage.

Case in point: ISPs will often exempt their own services from these limits while still penalizing competitors like Netflix, something the former Wheeler FCC was just starting to crack down on as an anti-competitive practice before Trump and Ajit Pai rose to power. And this week, AT&T took another step toward using usage caps as a weapon when it began informing its broadband customers that they won’t face usage caps — if they’re willing to subscribe to AT&T’s own streaming services:

“[AT&T] is emailing their broadband customers to alert them they now qualify for unlimited internet access because they also happen to subscribe to DirecTV Now, AT&T?s streaming service targeting cord cutters…AT&T normally charges customers an extra $30 a month to remove their 1,000 GB data cap.

In other words, use Netflix’s service? Get penalized and pay more. Use our own? Avoid any penalties. It’s ironic, given I’d just written a piece over at The Verge this week highlighting most of the dirty tricks AT&T was likely to use as it slowly takes advantage of the death of net neutrality rules and the general lack of adult oversight at the FCC. Users in several online forums have confirmed the move. AT&T confirmed to me that this was a new policy, but wouldn’t speak publicly on the record about it for what should probably be obvious reasons.

To clarify, AT&T applies a terabyte cap on most of its fixed-line broadband connections. Users can then pay AT&T an additional $30 per month to avoid this unnecessary limit. Previously, AT&T removed this cap if you bundled the company’s traditional TV services. Now, it’s removing the caps for free if you bundle AT&T’s own streaming service, giving AT&T a pretty obvious leg up on competitors like Amazon, Netflix, or smaller streaming operators. And while many argue that a terabyte is generous, that ignores the fact these limits are unnecessary in the first place, or that these limits will start to feel tight once 4K streaming truly takes off.

Since there’s limited competition in broadband, consumers who don’t like these kinds of arbitrary limits and anti-competitive gamesmanship usually have no alternative ISPs to choose from. And of course that’s always been the whole point: ISPs want to abuse a lack of competition to use their role as network operators to drive up rates and hamstring competitors. This agenda has always been painfully obvious; part of the reason informed consumers found the Ajit Pai FCC’s attacks on net neutrality rules so myopic and obnoxious.

Given the FCC’s landmark net neutrality vote just passed its one-year anniversary, I’ve seen more than a few dumb hot takes suggesting that because the internet didn’t completely fall apart in the last year, the rules must not have meant much. But that (usually intentionally) ignores that most ISPs are trying hard to behave given next February’s looming court challenge. It also ignores the fact that violations of net neutrality have always been a “death by a thousand cuts” sort of affair, where we increasingly say yes to tighter and tighter restrictions and idiotic anti-competitive caveats, only realizing what we’ve given up once it’s too late.

Picture yourself, the consumer, as the frog in the boiling frog fable.

First the public gets used to unnecessary usage caps and overage fees. Then, the public gets used to usage caps only applying to ISP competitors. From there, you accept additional unnecessary restrictions like HD video not working properly on your “unlimited” data plan unless you pony up more cash. Individually it’s pretty easy to dismiss these moves one at a time (and many clearly do), but it shouldn’t be hard to see that eventually, you wind up with a decidedly tilted playing field, made worse by an Ajit Pai FCC whose interests pretty clearly exclusively rests with helping these entrenched mono/duopolies make more money, not consumer welfare, sustaining competition, or protecting the health of the internet.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,
Companies: at&t, directv, netflix

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “AT&T Lets Users Avoid Broadband Caps…If They Use AT&T's Own Streaming Service”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Comcast was doing this back before Net Neutrality was repealed. And they got away with it, because the Net Neutrality rules were crap. They needed to be repealed, but needed to be replaced by something with teeth, that they can enforce. There was too many loop holes in the previous rules that they were meaningless.

Comcast did was to claim their streaming service “isn’t really streaming over internet since it stayed on their network the whole time”, it didn’t count against the bandwidth caps. Of course Hulu and Netflix would.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

ISPs will often exempt their own services from these limits while still penalizing competitors like Netflix, something the former Wheeler FCC was just starting to crack down on as an anti-competitive practice before Trump and Ajit Pai rose to power.

The rules certainly had problems(no zero rating ban for one), but the biggest problem with them wasn’t so much what was in them(what was there was good, if not going far enough) but enforcement. Wheeler was starting to crack down before he was replaced, at which point Pai basically tossed them out the door in his mad rush to give the ISP’s everything they could think of.

Anonymous Coward says:

There could be some valid reasons for such a policy. If AT&T keeps its in-house content on local servers to distribute to its customers, there’s an obvious cost and logistics advantage compared to having to stream Netflix content all the way across the country. That was a big reason why Usenet was set up the way it was, as a completely decentralized system with multiple redundant local servers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nothing to do with net neutrality

This seems to be a clever end-run around net neutrality. I’m not aware of any neutrality rule that would prohibit it. AT&T’s network treats the Netflix and AT&T streaming services exactly the same, but AT&T’s comes with a "free" upgrade (a $30/month value). The upgrade happens to apply to Netflix traffic as well, but would you really subscribe to Netflix if you already had AT&T’s?

Netflix could give each subscriber $30/month to get the cap removed—and then go bankrupt, because they don’t charge that much, which suggests that "AT&T Streaming" isn’t giving "AT&T Wireline" $30/month either. It’s a great example of why we need functional separation, or even robust anti-trust enforcement: they’re obviously using their wireline clout to give an unfair advantage to their streaming service.

Anonny says:

I'm calling it now...

The Feb lawsuit fails. $5 says AT&T knows, or has a high degree of confidence in winning February’s NN lawsuit. It is so bold enough to do this now, it must have a reason to be so bold.

Where that confidence comes from is not clear (to me at least). But the actions here are indicative that AT&T must have a reason to feel confident enough to pull this sh*t. It’s essentially zero rating. On the eve of the lawsuit.

So, to me, this is an indicator that Feb’s lawsuit will fail.

Anonymous Coward says:

as a former FORCED customer of centurylink I can personally confirm this: centurylink is also guilty of this practice.

It was added to the terms of service when they took over qwest Which I had a locked contract with If I stayed with them for extended time.

But my unlimited contract was essentially voided, by this clause about use of their streaming service and caps.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Older Stuff
05:30 Survey Shows Majority Of GOP Voters Support Restoring Net Neutrality (31)
06:25 Big Telecom Finally Ends Quest To Stop States From Protecting Broadband Consumers (35)
05:56 Big Telecom's Quest To Ban States From Protecting Broadband Consumers Continues To Go... Poorly (13)
12:15 Courts (Again) Shoot Down Telecom Lobby's Attempt To Kill State-Level Net Neutrality Rules (5)
04:48 Dumb Telecom Take Of The Week: Because The Internet Didn't Explode, Killing Net Neutrality Must Not Have Mattered (23)
09:37 British Telecom Wants Netflix To Pay A Tax Simply Because Squid Game Is Popular (32)
04:55 Axios Parrots A Lot Of Dumb, Debunked Nonsense About Net Neutrality (54)
10:50 NY AG Proves Broadband Industry Funded Phony Public Support For Attack On Net Neutrality (10)
06:24 The GOP Is Using Veterans As Props To Demonize Net Neutrality (22)
06:03 Telecom Using Veterans As Props To Demonize California's New Net Neutrality Law (12)
09:32 AT&T Whines That California Net Neutrality Rules Are Forcing It To Behave (11)
06:23 The New York Times (Falsely) Informs Its 7 Million Readers Net Neutrality Is 'Pointless' (51)
15:34 Facebook's Australian News Ban Did Demonstrate The Evil Of Zero Rating (18)
04:58 'Net Neutrality Hurt Internet Infrastructure Investment' Is The Bad Faith Lie That Simply Won't Die (11)
05:48 Dumb New GOP Talking Point: If You Restore Net Neutrality, You HAVE To Kill Section 230. Just Because! (66)
06:31 DOJ Drops Ridiculous Trump-Era Lawsuit Against California For Passing Net Neutrality Rules (13)
06:27 The Wall Street Journal Kisses Big Telecom's Ass In Whiny Screed About 'Big Tech' (13)
10:45 New Interim FCC Boss Jessica Rosenworcel Will Likely Restore Net Neutrality, Just Not Yet (5)
15:30 Small Idaho ISP 'Punishes' Twitter And Facebook's 'Censorship' ... By Blocking Access To Them Entirely (81)
05:29 A Few Reminders Before The Tired Net Neutrality Debate Is Rekindled (13)
06:22 U.S. Broadband Speeds Jumped 90% in 2020. But No, It Had Nothing To Do With Killing Net Neutrality. (12)
12:10 FCC Ignores The Courts, Finalizes Facts-Optional Repeal Of Net Neutrality (19)
10:46 It's Opposite Day At The FCC: Rejects All Its Own Legal Arguments Against Net Neutrality To Claim It Can Be The Internet Speech Police (13)
12:05 Blatant Hypocrite Ajit Pai Decides To Move Forward With Bogus, Unconstitutional Rulemaking On Section 230 (178)
06:49 FCC's Pai Puts Final Bullet In Net Neutrality Ahead Of Potential Demotion (25)
06:31 The EU Makes It Clear That 'Zero Rating' Violates Net Neutrality (6)
06:22 DOJ Continues Its Quest To Kill Net Neutrality (And Consumer Protection In General) In California (11)
11:08 Hypocritical AT&T Makes A Mockery Of Itself; Says 230 Should Be Reformed For Real Net Neutrality (28)
06:20 Trump, Big Telecom Continue Quest To Ban States From Protecting Broadband Consumers (19)
06:11 Senators Wyden And Markey Make It Clear AT&T Is Violating Net Neutrality (13)
More arrow