Data caps at broadband internet providers might be a coronavirus casualty nobody will miss—except the ISPs that had profited from them.
In less than a week, the top U.S. internet service providers imposing data caps have waived those limits to accommodate the millions of Americans now working and learning from home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
And Patient Zero in this particular outbreak was an unlikely suspect: AT&T, an aggressive adopter of data caps that it, like Comcast and others, had pitched as a fair-minded response to the alleged unfairness of some people using so much more of their connection than you.
Hours after a March 12 piece at Vice’s Motherboard site scolded ISPs for retaining data caps in this growing crisis, the Dallas telecom giant told the tech news site’s Karl Bode that it would suspend $10-and-up overage charges that kicked in after just 150 GB a month for digital-subscriber-line users or 1 TB for its fiber-connected customers.
The next day, after Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai asked internet providers to “Keep Americans Connected” but didn’t call for lifting data caps, Comcast and CenturyLink followed AT&T’s example by setting aside their 1 TB limits.
March 16 saw the smaller cable operators Cox and Mediacom take the same step—Cox erased a 1 TB limit, while Mediacom’s started at just 400 GB. That leaves no residential provider among the top 10 (as estimated by the Leichtman Research Group) still capping users’ data. Many smaller ones (as tracked by the consumer-advocacy site Stop the Cap) have done likewise.
The fact that cable operators Spectrum and Altice and telecoms such as Verizon, Frontier, and Windstream had all declined to join the data-cap craze had always made the overage charges of other providers look suspect.
“You’ve had several providers who don’t have data caps who have been trudging along perfectly fine this entire time,” says Tyler Cooper, editor of the ISP-database site BroadbandNow.
Slow internet is still slow
Historically, ISPs have defended data caps as involving fairness and necessary to keep internet access fast for all users. But Speedtest, the bandwidth-measurement service run by Ookla, found that Comcast’s data cap and $50 overage fee yielded almost no benefit for the slowest 10% of users—those who could most use some extra speed in the last few weeks. From February 18 through March 12, the day before Comcast lifted its caps, Speedtest measured almost identical average download speeds among these least-advantaged users at Comcast and its cap-free cable counterpart Spectrum: 20 Mbps for Comcast, 19.8 Mbps for Spectrum, each well below the FCC’s 25 Mbps definition of “broadband.”
Now earlier exponents of data caps are renouncing them even as their networks carry unprecedented daytime traffic.
Although Speedtest has seen slight slowdowns, U.S. providers appear to be coping fine overall with having more users online during work hours as many of us depart offices and try to stay productive from home.
[pullquote class=”topquote” cite=”Analyst Avi Greengart”]Once the crisis has passed, I think ISPs will still need to exclude abusers.[/pullquote]”I’ve not seen any indication that the shift towards remote work has created something that’s dramatically outpacing the peak Netflix hour,” says Cooper, citing BroadbandNow’s analysis of internet-traffic data collected by the open-source project Measurement Lab.
One reason: Work often doesn’t need as much bandwidth as play. For example, the videoconferencing app Zoom’s bandwidth requirements top out at 3 Mbps for group high-definition calling, while Netflix specifies 5 Mbps for HD streaming and 25 Mbps for 4K video.
(Note that even a tight broadband cap can’t stop a large fraction of an ISP’s customers from watching the same stream all at once. Netflix’s pledge Thursday to lower its streaming resolution to European Union subscribers for 30 days is a more direct solution to that problem. It’s also something net-neutrality advocates have warned could happen because of pressure from ISPs.)
Comcast, the nation’s largest internet provider with 26.4 million residential broadband subscribers, says it’s not hitting any problems.
“So far we have seen some shifts in usage patterns toward more daytime usage in areas that have moved to a work from home environment, but the overall peaks are still well within our network capability,” emailed Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury.
Khoury did not say if Comcast would reassess its data caps once the coronavirus crisis passes, nor did publicists for AT&T, CenturyLink, and Cox.
But analysts expect data caps to go the way of dial-up.
“It will be really hard to roll back the [lifting of] data caps,” says Roger Entner, founder and lead analyst at Recon Analytics. “Once you give people something and it worked in an emergency, why doesn’t it work in normal circumstances?”
Cooper voiced similar thoughts: “It’ll be very interesting to see all these companies that have said this is a temporary measure respond once we’re out of this situation.”
That doesn’t mean that users at AT&T or Comcast can go on a bandwidth bender to celebrate the ebbing of COVID-19 fears. Those and other internet providers can still limit such extreme behavior as running high-traffic servers from their home computers with the same acceptable-use policies that all providers enforce.
“Once the crisis has passed, I think ISPs will still need to exclude abusers—if you want to run a server farm, you’re not going to be allowed to use a home broadband connection to do it,” emailed Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst at Techsponential. “However, you don’t need global data caps to accomplish that goal—terms of service should be sufficient.”