Why Comcast's Data Caps Aren't About 'Fairness'

How is charging everyone more money the only way to make things fair?

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Nov 6 2015, 4:15pm

Image: pfly/Flickr

Leaked documents allegedly from Comcast's internal customer service guide were posted to 4chan late Thursday, showing that the ISP plans to tell customers its expanded data limit programs is really about "fairness."

Earlier this week we learned that Comcast is planning to roll out data limits for residential internet customers to more markets, mainly in the south. Customers will be given 300 GB of data per month, and automatically charged an extra $10 for each additional 50 GB of data they use. As we pointed out before, one hour of streaming HD video uses 3 GB, so it's not crazy to see how that data could get eaten up quickly for heavy internet users. Comcast first starting experimenting with data limits back in 2008, but a lot of customers have never really been keen on the idea. The documents posted Thursday seem to show the company bracing for pissed off customers, with a list of talking points and peppy spins on the new limits.

Under a list of "Do's and Don't's" the documents instruct customer care agents not to say the program is about congestion management and instead tell customers it's about "fairness and providing a more flexible policy to our customers."

It's true that Comcast has built in some flexibility to the program. If you're a very light internet user who only pops online a few times a week to check your email and Facebook, 300GB is way more than you need. Comcast offers what seems like a bit of a break for these folks: they get 5 GB of data per month and a $5 credit if they use less than that. But there's a catch, of course: those customers get dinged $1 for every GB they use after the first 5. Heavy users can also opt to get an unlimited data plan, but that adds an extra $30 to $35 to their monthly bill (depending on service area), just to keep using the internet the same way they already do.

The idea of fairness is great in concept; people who hardly use any internet shouldn't be paying as much as Netflix-binging, torrent-addicted internet gluttons. The trouble is that Comcast's plans don't seem to level the playing field very much. Sure, those low-use customers can maybe get a $5 break on their bill, but they're still paying the same base rate as everyone else and risk very expensive overage charges if they're not careful. Meanwhile heavy users either have to risk paying huge additional fees if they slip over 300GB, or add an extra $30-$35 to their bill. This is without even taking into account the tiered speed pricing that Comcast sets.

And all of this only works one way: nobody is going to get $20 knocked off their bill if they only used 200 GB one month, but they will be dinged $20 if they use 400 GB.

While 300 GB might seem like plenty (Comcast says its average household only used 40 GB per month), it could still fall short for a modern family, especially if there are Netflix-streaming, mmorpg-playing, constantly-on-their-damn-phones teens in the house. And as we move into an Internet of Things future and more and more devices in our homes are sucking up data, it's easy to see why Comcast might want to prepare for disenchanted customers.

We reached out to Comcast for comment and to verify the documents, but have not yet received a response. We will update this story if we hear back from Comcast.