Home Tech News The FCC wants to hear all about your internet plan’s data caps

The FCC wants to hear all about your internet plan’s data caps

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If you haven’t thought about your internet plan for a while, well, we can’t blame you. Most of us only really notice when our bills get screwy.

Whether you noticed or not, though, your home internet plan may be subject to data caps, which service providers use to limit how much we can download and upload each month. While many of us got a pandemic-era reprieve, these limits on data usage are still a common part of our lives online — but their days may (finally) be numbered.

Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel earlier this month proposed an inquiry that would dig into — among other things — customer experiences with internet data caps, “trends in consumer data usage,” and why these caps still exist at all. That’s where you come in: The FCC is also actively seeking out stories highlighting how these data caps have affected customers, and you should take a few minutes today to submit yours if you have a doozy.

“When we need access to the internet, we aren’t thinking about how much data it takes to complete a task, we just know it needs to get done,” Rosenworcel wrote last week, adding that it’s time the commission takes “a fresh look at how data caps impact consumers and competition.”

Limits are all too common

While they take different approaches, many of the country’s largest internet providers have some sort of limit on how much data you can use.

AT&T, for example, has different caps for different kinds of internet plans. All of Cox’s home internet plans offer users a total of 1.25 terabytes of data each month; tiptoe over that threshold, and you’ll have to pay $10 for every additional 50 gigabytes.

Meanwhile, Xfinity offers unlimited data on its home internet plans, but only if you pay $30 a month on top of your base internet plan, or pay $25 per month extra for its “xFi Complete” feature, which includes the cost of a monthly lease for one of their modem/router combos. (Strangely, customers in the Northeast don’t have to worry about this — they all get unlimited data by default.)

In fairness, that’s not a small amount of data to play with — 1.2 TB is equivalent to around 200 hours of nonstop 4K video streaming, according to a handy calculator built by AT&T.

But factor in things such as long video calls, lots of movie and music streaming and large game downloads — not to mention endeavors growing in popularity, like live-streaming on platforms such as Twitch — and it’s not hard to see how that data can go pretty quickly. And of course, that’s especially true for households with lots of people.

The situation can be even trickier for people who live in remote or rural areas, where internet access is harder to come by and more limited in nature. Plans for satellite internet providers like HughesNet, for instance, offer you between 15GB and 200GB per month depending on how much you’re willing to pay. And while HughesNet won’t cut off your service or charge you extra if you exceed those limits, you can expect your internet to get noticeably slower. (Think of it as a cap on experience, more than usage.)

It’s no wonder, then, that some experts find data caps at least a little detestable.

“We think [data caps] are a craven money grab, but if the ISPs can prove a legitimate technical justification for them, so be it,” said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports. “But the fact that many ISPs do not impose them, or in [Xfinity’s] case, don’t even impose them across their entire service territory suggests otherwise.”

There’s at least one notable exception here, though. Charter Communications — which offers internet service through its Spectrum brand — hasn’t enforced any data caps in years thanks to an agreement it inked with the FCC when it acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in 2016, and a spokesperson confirmed to The Post that it has “no plans to add data caps.”

Even if the Commission finds that these kinds of data limits are problematic enough to warrant a fix, it’s hard to say what its next steps would be. That’s for a few reasons.

While the original announcement notes that the agency may “consider taking action” to ensure that these caps don’t “cause harm to competition or consumers’ ability to access broadband internet services,” it also admits that the inquiry is meant at least in part to determine the “Commission’s legal authority to take actions regarding data caps.”

It doesn’t help that the FCC is still ideologically deadlocked along party lines, leaving some endeavors — such as President Biden’s push to revive net neutrality rules — stuck in the muck. But even that may soon change: after the long-stalled Gigi Sohn withdrew her nomination to fill the Commission’s empty fifth seat earlier this year, Biden nominated State Department communications policy adviser Anna Gomez for the slot; she is set to face the Senate Commerce Committee for the first time on Thursday.

In other words, it’ll be a while before the FCC gathers the evidence it wants, let alone figure out what — if anything — it should do about data caps.

But don’t let that timetable get you down: if you have a story about how limits on your internet plan made your life a little harder, it’s still worth spilling the tea on your ISP. All you have to do is fill out this form — with any luck, your experience could make all of our internet plans a little less obnoxious.

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Abraham
Expert tech and gaming writer, blending computer science expertise