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FCC Might Finally Start Policing Broadband Usage Caps, Unreliable Usage Meters

from the that-will-be-extra dept

For years, we've noted how regulators have paid empty lip service toward the problems with broadband usage caps, historically buying into the ISP narrative that they're just "creative pricing exploration." There are two problems with that: one, they can be (and have been) used to hurt internet video competitors and protect legacy TV revenues. Two, nobody is checking to ensure that meters are accurate, meaning there have been numerous instances where users are overcharged, or hit with usage overage fees when the power was out or their modems were off, with absolutely no repercussion.

Since they're just glorified rate hikes, usage caps are just another symptom of a lack of competition in the broadband space. With the FCC on a bit of a consumer-friendly tear of late and finally addressing the issues with limited competition, there are indications that usage caps may finally become part of the conversation. FCC insiders now say the agency might start policing caps if Comcast begins to expand its usage meter ambitions:
"An operator the size of Comcast absolutely will draw scrutiny,” said our source. “If Comcast decides to impose its currently tested market trial plans on Comcast customers nationwide, the FCC will take a closer look. Under Title II, the agency is empowered to watch for attempts to circumvent Net Neutrality policies. Usage caps and charging additional fees to customers looking for an alternative to the cable television package will qualify, especially if Comcast continues to try to exempt itself."
Right now, Comcast only imposes usage caps in a key number of less competitive Southern markets, but has shown every indication it would like to expand caps and overages nationally. As more and more users drop cable TV for internet video, and drop internet voice service for wireless only, ISPs will inevitably look to extract their pound of flesh through broadband rate hikes. Those rate hikes are easier to impose when you claim they're necessary due to "fairness" or congestion (even though the cable industry itself admitted this was a bogus excuse back in 2013).

Of course, this is a nightmare scenario for ISPs, and they'll be quick to suggest the agency is scrambling down the slippery slope of rate regulation, despite repeatedly stating it wouldn't be using Title II in that capacity. Of course, preventing ISPs from using bogus congestion as a revenue generator is a key part of the agency's net neutrality policies, and the agency has already been warning wireless carriers about using throttling and network management to drive unlimited users to more expensive plans. The FCC can correctly argue that caps are more about competition and net neutrality than rate regulation, and it would be right.

Having an FCC that actually cares about these kinds of issues is entirely new territory, since the agency has turned a blind eye to competition problems (and all of the residual symptoms of that disease) for the better part of fifteen years. Of course, an anonymous source promising to "take a closer look" doesn't automatically equate to action, and even this new, more consumer-friendly FCC has remained largely mute on most pricing issues. Millions of DSL and cable customers currently face usage caps, per gigabyte overages and unreliable meters (not to mention obnoxious below-the-line stealth fees) every day thanks to no competition.

You can eliminate these symptoms by curing the disease that is a lack of competition, but with entrenched duopolies and regulatory capture making that a multi-decade effort, it might be nice if somebody, somewhere could protect broadband consumers from getting screwed in the interim.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2015 @ 2:50pm

    "You can eliminate these symptoms by curing the disease that is a lack of competition, but with entrenched duopolies and regulatory capture making that a multi-decade effort, it might be nice if somebody, somewhere could protect broadband consumers from getting screwed in the interim."

    Afreakingmen.

    At this point I would consider consumer protective actions from the FCC a stop-gap measure until local and state governments remove Head-from-Hinder and create regulations that encourage an actual market, and not the BS many people have to deal with right now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2015 @ 3:26pm

    Personally, I think it should become a rule that the market price for a single byte (8 bits) should reflect the medium price of hard drives. Personally, to me it makes the most sense since a single megabyte of data used to cost around $7000 50 years ago but now is worth less than a penny.

    The coast to manufacture the hardware to transfer data obviously costs money but the cost of transfer that data doesn't amount to anything that is remotely profitable. Which is why I believe that broadband prices should reflect the prices of hard drives...It's a fickle situation but if it were adopted, not only would prices go down but ingenuity would go up...Alas, the very things that ISPs are against here in America...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 13 May 2015 @ 3:56pm

      Re:

      That seems like a pretty arbitrary standard to me. Cost to send a byte of data should be in some way tied to the cost of storing a byte of data? What does one have to do with the other? If you were to limit market price, it should be connected to a rate associated with the market itself. But no, heavy handed government rate regulation is not the solution. Not only would it give pro-big-business pundits a perfect target about overbearing government regulation, its only another band-aid to the problem. As seen in several areas of Europe where there is broadband competition, competition keeps prices low naturally. Rate regulation might very well depress the private market and undermine the growth we need. Until the competitive market improves a light touch approach, handling the obvious abuses and keeping the market in check without employing rules that will be difficult to pass and even more difficult to get rid of is a solid approach.

      And I am not confident I want to see the ingenuity that comes of artificially low broadband pricing. And yes, current pricing is naturally high. When dealing with a service that is the next best thing to mandatory without competitive market forces to keep prices down, a natural tendency is for the price of that service to rise. We have seen it with good and seen it with services. Rate regulation will only lower prices in an artificial manner, that is counter to normal market forces. Sometimes this is good, and in the short run could be a benefit to consumers. However a rise in ingenuity by the ISPs might not benefit consumers. Nor would the general belief that new (public or private) competitive players in the broadband game are no longer needed, because prices are already low.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Nobody, 14 May 2015 @ 10:39am

      Re:

      That doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

      For one thing, what is transferred is rarely the same as what is stored. It may be stored in ASCII and transferred in binary, or vice versa. Or perhaps the web server encrypts their traffic, adding overhead at the transportation layer that does not exist at the physical layer of storage.

      Not to mention that there are additional costs for electricity, additional hardware, routers, cables, etc. Why arbitrarily tie it to one thing that doesn't even have any correlation?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2015 @ 3:49pm

    My ISP (Comcast) counts infrastructure towards my usage

    Sorry if this is too technical. Comcast says my network usage is 350+GB a month, when it used to be about 125GB. I started watching my usage on my router, and found out I was using 75kbps 24/7. Even when all devices are turned off and it's just the cable modem and router in isolation.

    So I replaced the router with a linux box running wireshark, and much to my astonishment, found out that I'm getting 2500 ARP pings per second from the Comcast head end router to my modem, 24/7, inquiring after modems of customers all across the country. Of course, my model dutifully counts this as "my" traffic.

    There isn't any way to prevent this traffic from being sent to you, and after going through Comcast's "customer service", no way to keep ARP traffic from counting towards your "usage".

    They said that the usage was metered by your cable modem, and "maybe" I'd have better success with a different modem, perhaps I'd like to rent one from them for $7 a month?

    At $10 per 50GB,if I use the data I'm supposed to get, I'm on the hook $50 extra for the privilege of being DOS'd by Comcast's own infrastructure...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Lord Binky, 14 May 2015 @ 7:25am

      Re: My ISP (Comcast) counts infrastructure towards my usage

      It's unrealistic to have customers buy a JTAG and start customizing their router firmware of the router they own, just to correct Comcast's traffic count.

      This kind of thing is easy for the FCC to investigate though. Dig into the rules that determine ARP rate, and if customers owning their own modem have a higher rate, that is conclusive evidence against Comcast's horrific practices. It doesn't help Comcast if they do this to anyone in their "congested" areas, since that is a ridiculous self-induced and completely unreasonable overhead. It provides good ground to argue that all their network management practices and implementation should be reviewed by a third party before deployment.

      While unrealistic, it really is stupid of Comcast to do something like that. It only works against them when it's found out. The risk of the FCC checking up on them for things like this in say 50 locations across various markets before giving any heads up, would eliminate any "oops it was an accident" argument they have too.

      Comcast Execs.. do you not understand : TOO MANY OF YOUR CUSTOMERS HATE YOUR COMPANY AND ARE OUT TO SEE YOU FAIL. Why make it easier for them? It's your names that will go down with the company, not the board encouraging you to sink the ship. If you think everything is still fine, you really have to drop the hubris, they will outsmart you their numbers too great. For your own sake..start doing right by the customer or get out now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Nobody, 14 May 2015 @ 10:46am

      Re: My ISP (Comcast) counts infrastructure towards my usage

      75 kbps constantly is 194,400,000 kilobits per month. That's 24.3 gigabytes per month. Your calculation is off by a factor of 10.

      Not that it makes it right, but it doesn't come even close to making up the difference between 125GB and 350+GB.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Phillip (profile), 13 May 2015 @ 6:03pm

    That's great that they'll look into if it expands, but what about us getting screwed already?

    I'm already currently getting screwed about this. I've already filed an FCC complaint last year when Comcast said I was using ~100GB/month more than my router with DD-WRT said I was using. When I asked for details as to when/how this supposed discrepancy happens, they couldn't tell me any details about usage per hour/day/etc only the last 3 days and the month.

    So that's great the FCC will look into it if they expand their "trial", but in the meantime I've been under this "trial" for the last two years and nothing seems to happen or change.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Joe V, 13 May 2015 @ 7:08pm

    Data caps are extortion

    I’m an AT&T DSL subscriber and a cord cutter that watches streaming TV. Explain to me how a 150 gigabyte per month and for every 50 gigs a subscriber goes over is charged an additional $10 is somehow not extortion on a supposedly 6-meg (in reality I get 4.38-meg) speed connection???

    You shills and the ISPs that employ you ARE CROOKS.

    I have contacted the FCC trying to get them to investigate this-to get them to listen-to no avail.

    Please ANYONE, GET the word out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Atkray (profile), 13 May 2015 @ 9:50pm

    Maybe the FTC?

    While I am loathe to suggest more government involvement, perhaps the solution lies with the FTC.


    If I go to the store and by something "by the pound" or purchase gasoline "by the gallon" the vendor is required to use a state certified device to measure with and there is a sticker on the device to tell all customers when it was last certified.

    If an ISP wishes to bill "by the __________" then require them to have certified meters in place that the consumer can clearly see were tested and certified.


    I suspect they would give up on this practice pretty quickly.
    Of course what they replace it with could be worse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MacMcG (profile), 14 May 2015 @ 4:49am

    Agendas

    Whatever corporate America does, it cannot succeed if the Congress doesn't open certain doors. It doesn't matter what Comcast says or does... it's which doors stay closed in Congress. Some argue there should be canvassing of all affected citizens/residents in this country... good idea!
    It could all be tweeted, twitted and facebooked .... easy!

    Then comes the 'nay-sayers' attacking the unvalidated numbers who tweeted NO vs those on the fence.. One can be sure that those kinds of numbers (hundreds of thousands or even millions) will be dismissed by Congress as 'unofficial', yet, their bosses (CITIZENS - public) ARE/is talking.... Congress doesn't care to listen or even think OF IT.

    I SUGGEST the public start a "Congress Be Aware" web page highlighting those issues/concerns Congress hasn't bothered to do anything about but make statements -- nothing else gets done -- they're too busy on the campaign trail or congressional days off and/or their holiday trend setting.

    We put these jackasses there and WE need to find the way to put NEW jackasses there who remember who they are there for!
    Congress thinks it's untouchable -- and it IS.. Talk about Security! You want to get some public service employee's attention?, No phone no, no twitter, no email address usage by the GOV, send letter requesting audience.. takes weeks... UPI controlled questions (otherwise no response from the congressman or senator).

    Capitalism will eventually become lost and die and be replaced with something better suited to administering to smaller worlds. It would be, should be a better place NOW!... for EVERYBODY!... nah, wishful thinking. Power is money - the U.S. has it (top $. 2%) 1st rule is NO SHARING (unless it's profitable). These folks could fix all our roads and bridges and electrical powergrids, renewable energy(solar, wind, geo-thermal, etc.) and they would feel any lighter in the pocket because the subsidies would be coming right back to their bankers, not counting graft/fraud and embezzling along the way. You and I would not see much of those infrastructure improvements unless we traveled over ground like Semi-truck drivers.

    Amnazingly, nothing's been solved since Nixon - talk about opening the door to 'cheap' labor! This was WAY before NAFTA (Clinton), and all in favor say 'AYE'! American labor wasn't consulted.. far too few votes and political suicide if revealed to the public.= job loss. snowball - sleezy home mortgages perpetrated on Americans & others (Clinton). Bush - defecate... oops deficit! - Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, 9/11.... long incompetent road!
    Obama - Flubber - inconsistency - TALK/no action, no energy policy, no foreign policy, no fema policy, DHS- JOKE! Evolving weather patterns - no talk regarding new/updating weather models?! People will die or be injured every year because DHS is a joke! DHS doesn't have 'weather patterns' as having anything to do with 'HOMELAND' security!

    Nuff said for now... maybe more later.

    Mac

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    B. Baxter, 14 May 2015 @ 7:39am

    Data Caps are a form of Terrorism

    I live in Georgia, a recent transplant from California. In California Comcast didn't have any restrictions, I was with them from the beginning - never a word about my data usage, and I was online every second I was at home, both me, my wife, any of my family / guests - and sometimes on several computers at once. I streamed or downloaded what I wanted and never, ever a whisper from Comcast about my usage.

    So in Georgia, I am not even set up like I was in California. My wife is watching a live show and I am surfing the net and for an hour or two I might play a browser game (very little bandwidth). It takes 6 days before I get a rude notice flashing on my screen about my 300gb usage cap. They say it resets at the beginning of the month - so 6 DAYS? The rest of the month I will have to dole out $10.00 per 50gb to a system that only took 6 days to hit 300gb? INSANE.

    I tested the usage, the streaming show was coming down in about 1mb per second. Im sure Comcast knows that broadband is the norm, and it typically pulls down more data no matter what people do. It's not like it's some special service that only a few of us have. I don't think anybody is rocking a 56k modem anymore...

    So Comcast is razing people who live in the South, I find out. We pay the same as everyone else, but we get caps and have to PAY MORE for the same level of access. This is not only unfair to us, it's unfair to services that rely on the internet - which is a PUBLIC SPACE (only the wires belong to the ISP, not the actual INTERNET). Basically they are limiting innovation, growth and causing people to lose job opportunities. They are hindering a lot of business from producing money, which in turn is hindering our government from collecting much needed tax revenue. Their actions are costing America money, costing us innovation, costing us employment in a bad economy - and that is why I call it an act of terrorism. They are using Data Caps as a form of hostage, for which they are looking for a ransom. They are lashing out at our government's decisions (net neutrality) by trying to extract their "pound of flesh" in any place they are allowed. maybe they need to be NOT ALLOWED.

    I noted Comcast but this refers to all of the Cappers. ISP's got big, but that should have never been. They got too big and are now trying to run everything. They should only be an access line to the internet, not the gate keepers. They have shown irresponsibility in that regard. There are plenty of entities who would have been happy just providing the lines - but instead we get these megalomaniacs drunk on power and ego. They must know that the internet is more than what people can do on 300 or less gb per month. Smart TV, streaming services, mobile data, wirless pcs, wired pcs, cloud computing and applications (hi Adobe, Microsoft), gaming and digital distribution - which is becoming de-facto - are just a few stymied areas. We are all suffering under this power play.

    it was already bad enough, as big players have choked the natural speed of the net - portioning it out and pretending they have found some new way to "speed it up" - but data caps on top of that. Sorry but I welcome regulation if de-regulation give me this BS.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Jun 2015 @ 1:57am

      Re: Data Caps are a form of Terrorism

      "...only the wires belong to the ISP, not the actual INTERNET..."

      Ever tried to get to this beautiful thing you call "INTERNET aka PUBLIC SPACE" bypassing "their wires" ?
      Which kinda voids all your logic here (no offense, nothing personal).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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