Comcast: We Don’t Have Data Caps, We Have “Data Thresholds”

We like to imagine this terrifying display inside the Comcast HQ lobby in Philadelphia is actually a live feed of the images playing through CEO Brian Roberts' mind (photo: Kevin Burkett)

We like to imagine this terrifying display inside the Comcast HQ lobby in Philadelphia is actually a live feed of the images playing through CEO Brian Roberts’ mind (photo: Kevin Burkett)

In its ongoing effort to put lipstick on the pig that is its planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable, Comcast is once again attempting to hide behind double-speak. First, it claimed that it was the greatest supporter of net neutrality around, when it really meant that it was the biggest supporter of what Comcast believes net neutrality should be. Now, another Comcast executive is trying to downplay data caps with the more marketing-friendly term “data thresholds.”

In March, the Writers Guild of America came out in opposition to the merger, expressing concern that a post-merger Comcast would use “[data] caps, tiers, metering, or other usage-based pricing” to dissuade consumers from using bandwidth-heavy competitors like Netflix or Amazon, both of which offer consumers an alternative to traditional cable television.

But rather than respond to the actual concerns expressed by the WGA and others, Comcast decides to focus on semantics.

“We don’t have data caps — and haven’t for about two years,” Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s VP of government communications, wrote in an e-mail to the International Business Times in response to the WGA filing. “We have tested data thresholds where very heavy customers can buy more if they want more — but that only affects a very small percentage of our customers in a few markets.”

And indeed, back in May 2012, Comcast did stop enforcing its standard 250GB/month data cap, but only so it could begin testing 300GB caps — sorry, “thresholds” — that the allows heavy users to buy additional buckets of data at $10 per 50GB. This initial test has since expanded to more markets.

The fact is that it’s still a cap; it still represents a maximum amount of data that standard users can access without having to pay more. Call it a threshold, or a limit, or a thingyamdoo, a cap by another name would still smell as, well… whatever caps smell like.

This talk of whether or not Comcast is currently testing caps/thresholds is a distraction from the actual concerns expressed by the WGA. The Guild, like many others opposed to the merger, are worried about what lengths a SuperComcast might go to make it less attractive for customers to access disruptive online competitors like Netflix and Amazon.

Merely stating that the company got rid of “caps” in 2012 does nothing to indicate what Comcast plans to do going forward. It’s like a spouse claiming they won’t cheat in the future by pointing out that it’s been a couple years since they last cheated (though they’ve been doing a lot of “flirting” around the office).

The fact that Comcast has expanded its testing of these kind-and-gentle thresholds seems to indicate that it’s been having success with them. To me, it’s also a sign that Comcast is more than aware that in a few years’ time, a fully-connected household will be brushing up against that 300 GB number more and more frequently.

If Comcast were truly only instituting these thresholds to rein in a small percentage of data-hogging customers, it would have just raised the data cap universally from 250GB to 300GB. These tests are to likely so the company can see how unrestricted customers behave compared to capped customers so that it has a better idea of what to expect when everyone is downloading all of their movies, music, and especially video games, as files for big-name titles for the new Xbox One and PS4 consoles can be several times the size of an HD movie.

When pushed on the topic of data caps, ISPs often fall back on the old excuse that these limits are needed to relieve congestion. But the cable industry itself had plainly admitted that they aren’t about congestion but about getting heavy users to pay their fair share.

Similarly, the cable industry claims that tiered or usage-based pricing should be the standard so that the grandma who only uses the Internet once a month to send an e-mail to her grandson at summer camp isn’t subsidizing the bachelor, who is streaming Netflix while playing a video game online and Skyping with 23 friends all around the world.

But it’s been shown that the cost for storing and delivering data continues to drop, while the cost to consumers remains flat or increases, meaning the Comcasts of the world are making larger profits as they drive down their own expenses without passing those savings on to consumers.

At the same time, you have former FCC Chair-turned-face of the cable industry Michael “Yes, my dad is Colin, but I swear I deserve this job” Powell urgently exhorting the cable companies to switch to usage-based pricing before it’s “too late for businesses to change consumers’ minds that tiered pricing is a good thing.”

ISPs have been monkeying around with tiered pricing for years, and have been licking their lips as they watch their cousins in the wireless world reap the benefits of their many data tiers. And barring regulation or legislation that puts a cap on data caps, it seems inevitable that ISPs will at the very least follow Comcast’s lead and establish what currently appear to be reasonable limits, but which will soon be par for the course once even the aforementioned granny learns she can watch Matlock reruns online.

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