ISPs Finally Lifted Data Caps. It Only Took A Global Pandemic

from the oh-is-that-all-it-took? dept

During the catastrophic 2018 wildfires in California, Verizon made a painful and memorable gaffe: It throttled the Santa Clara Fire Department’s supposedly “unlimited” broadband data, causing the department to have to pay twice as much as usual to restore internet speeds that allowed it to deploy critical wildfire response.

Now, with the entire globe gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, internet service providers don’t want to repeat Verizon’s mistake. Several major ISPs all over the world have announced that, among other measures, they’re suspending data caps for the duration of the crisis.

It’s something consumers and activists have been calling for — for years. And it only took a global pandemic for ISPs to start listening.

But will data caps come back as soon as countries ease their lockdowns and workplaces and schools start going back to normal? Will ISPs resume their data capping practices even sooner than that?

We have plenty of reason to believe this is temporary. Rather than letting ISPs off the hook right now, we should be preparing ourselves for when some (or all) of them inevitably return to their old tricks. It only takes looking at the history of ISPs and consumer satisfaction to see why.

What Is Data Capping, and Why Do ISPs Get Away with it?

Data capping is a fairly common practice in the internet service provider industry, in which ISPs restrict how much data customers can use with their plans. This can take a couple different forms:

  • Tiered plans, in which customers pay for a certain amount of data, and then have to pay overage charges if they exceed the cap.
  • Throttling, in which customers pay for “unlimited” plans, but ISPs slow down their internet speeds if they exceed a certain amount of data transfer.

Historically, ISPs have asserted that data caps are necessary to conserve network capacity, but as technology and infrastructure have improved, industry experts have argued that that’s no longer the case.

More recently, ISPs that still use data capping have said it’s to make their services more “fair,” and prevent certain bad actors from “hogging” a network’s bandwidth. Some big players who have continued to use aggressive data capping — including AT&T and Comcast — have subscribed to this philosophy, justifying their caps by telling customers it’s how they address the “unfairness” of some customers using more internet than others.

But those arguments are tenuous at best. We know that data caps aren’t strictly necessary simply because some ISPs have refused to adopt them altogether. And the fact that companies are able to immediately suspend caps in times of crisis further reinforces that there’s no real reason for them — other than for ISPs to make more money from overage charges.

Why Are ISPs Suspending Data Caps Right Now?

On March 12, Vice’s Motherboard published an opinion piece that was pretty critical of ISPs who were still data capping amid the growing coronavirus crisis. Just hours later, AT&T announced it would suspend data caps “until further notice.”

The next day, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai called for ISPs and phone service providers to sign his “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, which called on companies to open Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who needed them, and not terminate service or charge late fees to customers who were unable to pay their bills due to the coronavirus crisis. The pledge didn’t say anything about data caps, but what followed was a wave of ISPs who not only signed the pledge, but suspended data caps, raised their speeds, and began offering free service to qualifying low-income customers.

It’s clear that amid growing pressure from the public and lawmakers, ISPs have, at least for now, answered the call to do something to help consumers weather the pandemic. None of them want to repeat Verizon’s mistake during the 2018 wildfires.

But are these moves really as pro-consumer as they seem? That would depend on whether data caps are coming back, and we have nothing but evidence that points to some (if not all) ISPs eventually reinstating them.

Are Data Caps Gone for Good?

Some industry experts think the pandemic will spell the end of data caps — permanently.

TechCrunch reported that “Coronavirus could force ISPs to abandon data caps forever.” Fast Company wrote, “The coronavirus might have just killed ISP data caps.”

We’re a little less optimistic than that, and it’s all because of the history and track record of the ISP industry.

2013 was the first year that the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) included ISPs on its yearly survey of consumers. But that year, ISPs came in dead last out of the 43 industries ACSI surveys about — behind even health insurance providers, the postal service, and airlines.

Since then, ISPs have shown consistent year-over-year improvement in their marks on ACSI’s surveys, yet still came in dead last in the telecommunications industry in 2019. As the 2019 report put it, ISPs are “still falling short of providing good service at an affordable price.”

Online complaints and reviews complete the picture of how much trouble consumers have with their internet service providers. This map of the most hated ISPs in each state shows pretty alarming trends in why people feel so strongly about hating ISPs: They report unrelenting billing problems, deceptive pricing, slow speeds, poor service, and misleading sales tactics, even from the biggest ISP companies out there.

This history of bad acting by ISPs gives us pause when we see headlines applauding their efforts to keep people connected during the coronavirus pandemic. If ISPs want to truly do better by their customers, they need to make sweeping, long-lasting changes — like eliminating data caps altogether and for good.

ISPs Have a Long Way to Go

We’re certainly not criticizing ISPs for making things easier on their customers during a crisis.

But while this move is ultimately pro-consumer, the history of consumer dissatisfaction with ISPs should make us skeptical, or at the very least, cautiously optimistic, about how ISPs will act in the future. We have to remember they’re likely to go back to their old tricks, which means more money in their pockets, and a less free internet for all of us.

Christina Marfice has been a professional, freelance writer since college. She covers arbitration and consumer issues for FairShake. When she's not traveling the world or waiting in line at Disney World, she can be found at home snuggled up with her two cats and a cupcake.

Filed Under: broadband, competition, data caps, pandemic


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  • icon
    UniKyrn (profile), 12 May 2020 @ 2:08pm

    And having worked for several companies that made the equipment they use, I knew the caps were BS earlier than most. You buy a switch with 10G upstream, then demand we change the software so you can oversubscribe all the customer links? We resisted for awhile, before the top execs started making threats to us, not the ISP.

    I'm pleasantly surprised it's held up this well. I'm happy as hell that a lot of the things I worked on in my life suddenly get used the way the people I worked with and I envisioned.

    I'm just hoping that the average person is paying attention to how many of the artificial limits are being shown as greed and will fight back if those limits try to return.

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 May 2020 @ 2:16pm

    Its almost like all of the companies claims were not true...
    VHS would murder Hollywood
    No Datacaps would cost the companies trillions

    Its almost like big corporations lie to consumers...
    If only there were some big government agency that could punish them for lying to citizens... but then that agency would be focused more on propping up mini-monopolies instead of promoting competition that would cut costs & force better offerings to attract customers.

    But then we keep falling prey to our own brains...
    Well other people are hogging the connections & that means less for you! Refusing to admit that bandwidth isn't as costly as printer ink to obtain, but costs 15 times as much to consumers yet that windfall of cash they make never seems to improve the service just the shareprice.

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2020 @ 5:48pm

    Richard Bennett shitting his pants in 3, 2, 1...

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2020 @ 9:07pm

    Pressure from the public and lawmakers "encouraged" the big ISPs to remove their data caps, but stronger counterpressure from Wall Street will just force those data caps to be re-imposed, and Wall Street won't tolerate any delay in that happening.

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 12 May 2020 @ 9:29pm

    'The uh... network is back to being terrible you see.'

    The fact that you could simply pay more to bypass a cap, and that despite claims of 'fairness' there was no discount for low data users showed just how groundless the claims were, but by tossing them entirely during a period when more people than ever are online they are going to have one hell of a time defending caps when(not if) they try to add them back in.

    Kinda hard to argue that the network can't handle all that traffic and therefore people need to be charged for being 'heavy users' or 'encouraged' to use less via caps when it held up just fine during a period of heavy use by everyone, so it will be interesting to see what excuses they try to go with post-pandemic.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2020 @ 9:37pm

      Re: 'The uh... network is back to being terrible you see.'

      These mofos would tell you that the universe is running out of near-vacuum and needs restrictions on use.

      Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are infinite, like stock dividends, and board member and C-level compensation.

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

    • icon
      sd70mac (profile), 13 May 2020 @ 1:19pm

      Re: 'The uh... network is back to being terrible you see.'

      While at least some ISPs did or do offer some kind of discount or rollover data on capped plans, it is definitely the exception and not the rule so far. As usual, the remedy to high prices is more competition.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2020 @ 9:04am

    The purpose of a business is to make a profit. The purpose of a charity is to help people. Greed, however, is the desire to:
    a. make even more profit
    b. hoard said profit
    Companies don't care about their employees, per se, they care about profit.
    Companies don't care about their customers, per se, they care about profit.

    Greed is a heart problem that only God can fix.
    Greed is the downfall of any socioeconomic system.
    Greed will eventually lead to the downfall of any company by way of better (for the customer - a.k.a "cheaper") competition.

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

  • icon
    BoredSysAdmin (profile), 13 May 2020 @ 9:09am

    Platform

    I don't disagree with anything in the article, just one observation. Techdirt's own Karl Bode wrote hundreds of articles about why caps are stupid. A single article published on Vice and all of a sudden things are getting done...
    Just food for thought.

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


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