Comcast's Data Caps Are Six Different Kinds of Bullshit. Here's What They Are

Illustration for article titled Comcasts Data Caps Are Six Different Kinds of Bullshit. Heres What They Are

I’m a Comcast customer currently living in Atlanta. As such, I am one of the lucky victims customers who gets to try out Comcast’s data caps. This means my home internet has a cap, after which I will be charged fees for using my internet. This is some horse shit.


There are a lot of ways in which this is some Grade-A grass-fed manure, so I’ll go through them one at a time.

#1: You Probably Won’t Know Your Data Cap Until You’ve Exceeded It

Illustration for article titled Comcasts Data Caps Are Six Different Kinds of Bullshit. Heres What They Are

Comcast’s data caps are technically “trials.” That means Comcast is trying out new ways of screwing you. It also means that you’re not going to see any information about this when you try to sign up for internet service. Since those data caps are just a “trial” it’s not like you really need to tell customers about them, right?

Trying to find information about Comcast’s prices online is only slightly harder than towing an F-250 with a tricycle, but I managed to find a quote online for internet service at my current address as a new customer. As you can see above, the package we currently have (Extreme 105) offers 105 Mbps, perfect for “households with 5-8 devices online” and “HD movies, multiplayer gaming.” This is the package that you want to use if you’ve got a ton of internetting to do.


You also might spot the notice that says Data Usage Plans may apply. Let’s assume you’re a savvy internet customer that knows when you’re about to get screwed and you click this to find out about those terms. This is the page you’ll land on. This page lists where data cap trials are taking place, but does not specify what the data cap is or even where to find out. If you click the right questions, you can eventually find out that some markets have a 300GB cap, but you’re now two links deep into an FAQ page that you likely barely understood in the first place.

Additionally, even if you can make a safe assumption about whether a particular trial applies to you, it’s still never explicitly stated. For example, I say I live “in Atlanta”, however as any resident can tell you, that includes a pretty huge area. Do these caps apply to the urban “Atlanta” within the perimeter? Or any suburb miles outside the city that calls itself “Atlanta” for convenience sake? Comcast doesn’t bother saying.


#2: You Won’t Even Know For Sure If The Data Cap is Being Enforced

You’d think that even if you knew that you were in a trial market, that you’d be aware when you have a data cap on your internet. Not so, apparently. While I went through the process of researching the data cap as though I were a knew user in the section above, the truth is I always knew. I write about tech for a living. Of course I knew Atlanta was a trial market for Comcast’s data caps.


Except, I still had no way of knowing whether or not that cap was actually being enforced. I’ve lived in my current residence since October of 2014, well after the date that Comcast says my internet data cap trial began. However, we only began getting notifications that we would cross that cap two months ago.

“Maybe you just weren’t going over until now!” You might suggest. Fat chance. For starters, I work from home, so my internet is constantly in use. There’s very little that changes from month to month that would suddenly put us dramatically over that isn’t already part of my regular usage. Furthermore, this isn’t a case of going just slightly over. According to Comcast, we’ve used up 100% of our 300GB of data in the first ten days of our billing cycle.


Now, regardless of whether or not you think that’s a lot (I’ll come back to that in a bit), the fact remains that it’s impossible for us to have blown through 300GB in ten days, but stay under 300GB for all the months preceding this one, without some major change to our internet usage. The internet isn’t like air conditioning. We don’t only use it during the summer.

#3 How Data Caps Are Determined Makes No Fucking Sense

Personally, I think Comcast made a mistake putting all of its trials on one page. If you wanted to overcharge one customer, you don’t give another one a better price while he’s standing there. However, as you can see on that FAQ page, there is neither rhyme nor reason to how Comcast is applying these data caps.


Just to break it down, here are a few of the models that Comcast is using:

  • In Nashville, Comcast uses a flat 300GB data cap, regardless of speeds.
  • In Tucson, Comcast starts caps at 300GB for their basic internet plans. Customers with “Blast!” (however that’s defined in Arizona) get 350GB. Customers with “Extreme 50” (presumably 50Mbps) have 450GB. Extreme 105 customers have a cap of 600GB.
  • In Atlanta and several other markets, the cap is 300GB across all data plans. However, customers have a Flexible Data Option that drops their cap from 300GB down to a mere 5GB to save on their plan (more on that later).

The range of possible data caps between just a few trial markets—even if you get the same speeds!—ranges from 5GB to 600GB. While the 5GB plan may be optional, it’s difficult to fathom the mindset that lead Comcast to believe that these wildly arbitrary numbers bear any resemblance to the reality for its customers.

#4 Data Cap Pricing Makes Even Less Than No Fucking Sense

How much is a gigabyte worth? Thanks to cell carriers, we’ve gotten used to the idea that we can meter our internet usage in terms of total amount of data used (despite the fact that this misunderstands network management and defies logic). But if we’re going to pay by the gigabyte, we have to know how much that gigabyte is worth, right?


According to Comcast’s own data cap trials, the answer to this question is pulled straight out of the nearest farm animal’s rectum. Let’s exclude all of the other areas where Comcast is conducting data cap trials and focus on the one that’s taking place in Atlanta (and several other cities). Under the normal data cap plan, you get an allotment of 300GB of data. If you go over that cap, you will be charged $10 per 50GB. That comes out to roughly $0.20 per GB.

However, let’s say you wanted to save money and use that nifty-sounding Flexible Data Option. You sacrifice 295GB (or 98.3% of your monthly allotment) to bring your cap down to 5GB. That will net you a savings of...five bucks. Five. Fucking. Dollars. If we use this as a metric for how much Comcast values 1GB of data, the price comes down to less than $0.02 per GB.


But let’s say that you decide to take that plan anyway, then you go over. Do you get your data in 50GB increments like everyone else? Nope. You’re a super-saver, remember? You don’t have to spend ten whole dollars just because you went over. Instead, you can get more data at the totally-frugal-we-promise rate of $1 per GB.

Even within the same test market, Comcast can’t decide how much 1GB of data is worth. When it’s charging you for going over your cap, that cost is anywhere from 20 cents to a full dollar. When you’re giving it up, however, 1GB costs mere pennies. The pricing, much like the caps themselves, are wildly arbitrary. You can’t even blame the variance on experimenting with different models, because all of the above prices apply to the same market.


#5 There’s Basically Nothing You Can Do About It

If you were consistently going over your monthly data allotment on your cell phone plan, what would you do? Ask for a higher limit? Start using Wi-Fi? When your phone uses too much data, you have some options to fall back on. Under Comcast’s data caps, you’re basically screwed.


Unless you live in Tucson, all of Comcast’s data trials have a static, unchanging data cap. If you want to volunteer to pay more money so that you can have a higher cap, you’re shit out of luck. The option simply doesn’t exist. You can pay $10 per 50GB, but that’s really more of a fee.

Comcast even seems to agree. The nag alerts you get that appear over your regular browser session refer to these charges as “overage fees.” Additionally, they seem to appear at intervals designed to dissuade you from using your service. This week alone I’ve seen notices at 105% (over by 15GB), 110% (over by 30GB), and 125% (over by 75GB) of our 300GB data cap alone. Curiously, none of these intervals tell me I have been charged a fee. Just that I will if I keep using my internet.


The problem is, there’s nothing I can really do to affect this from here on out. I have to do my job, so I’m going to keep racking up data usage anyway. I can’t pay for a higher tier because Comcast doesn’t offer the option. The entire household could decide that we just don’t watch Netflix 20 days out of the month, but fuck that. We’re not paying for a month of internet service then not using it for two thirds of that time.

One other option is to upgrade to business class. I’ve repeatedly said that I work from home, after all, so maybe I should have that? As it happens, I’ve checked into that. The quote I got from a Comcast representative said that, for my area, the post-promotional price for a business line would be $162 per month. That’s at least $70 more than the high speed internet package we’re already paying for. If I just paid that difference towards overage fees already associated with my data cap, I could get another 350GB for a total of 650GB. Which, by the way, is more than 600GB the good folks in Tucson are getting for their residential package.


#6 Comcast Doesn’t Even Think These Are Data Caps

I’ve referred to these as “data caps” this entire article, but that’s apparently a matter of opinion. According to Comcast in 2014 (well into the current trial periods), the company doesn’t even have data caps. Instead, Comcast refers to this type of metering as “data thresholds” or “flexible data consumption plans.” If you’re wondering what that smells is, it’s bullshit.


Now, far be it from me to tell Comcast what its marketing team can and can’t do to hide their obvious bullshit. Coca-Cola says soda is refreshing instead of killing you slowly. McDonald’s says its food “tastes good.” Brands gonna brand, amirite? However, Comcast isn’t just denying that it has data caps to customers. They’re denying it to Congress.

In a filing to the New York Public Service Commission in 2014 (back when Comcast still had hopes of acquiring TWC), the company said the following regarding its data caps:

Comcast does not have ‘data caps’ today... Comcast announced almost two years ago that it was suspending enforcement of its prior 250GB excessive usage cap and that it would instead be trialing different pricing and packaging options to evaluate options for subscribers—options that reflect evolving Internet usage and that are based on the desire to provide flexible consumption plans, including a plan that enables customers who want to use more data the option to pay more to do so as well as a plan for those who use less data the option to save some money.


For your convenience, I’ve highlighted everything in the above quote that’s bullshit. To summarize:

  • Comcast has data caps. Call it what you like, Comcast will pester you when you go over a certain limit and refers to any money paid after that limit as an “overage fee.” Any other industry would refer to this as a cap.
  • The caps do not reflect “evolving internet usage.” With the exception of Tucson, there are no data caps that adapt to the speeds or usage of the user. The 300GB cap that applies to someone with a 15Mbps connection applies to one with a 105MBps connection. Furthermore, Comcast’s gigabit service it intends to roll out will have no caps at all. If a data cap plan reflects “evolving internet usage,” users should expect higher caps for faster speeds.
  • There are no options. Only fees. Customers who want to use more data do not have any optional plans to choose from. Comcast’s claim that users can “choose” to pay more to use more data is more like an ultimatum. Between the nag screens and complete lack of transparency regarding the data caps at sign up, the only really option a user has is to pay up or stop using their internet.
  • Plans for users who use less data are pure extortion. The idea that Comcast thinks these aren’t data caps is insane enough, but the “Flexible Data Option” is pure extortion. It values 295GB of data at two cents per GB to reduce their cap, then charges a user $1 per GB for every one they go over. The only perspective from which this makes any sense is Comcast attempting to screw users who (very understandably!) may not know how much data a gigabyte is.

To describe these data cap trials as reckless extortion would be kind. Keep in mind that none of this covers any of the other ethical issues with Comcast’s attempts to limit home internet usage like the fact that the internet is a necessary utility, that Comcast’s data caps discourage cord cutting which is good for Comcast-owned NBC Universal, or the fact that the FCC likely wouldn’t take too kindly to these kinds of data caps rolling out nationwide.

As of right now, Comcast has kept these data caps relatively sparse, likely because it knows the backlash the company would receive if it rolled them out everywhere. Chances are good most Americans have no fucking clue how much data they use in a month at home, much less how much they’d have to pay if Comcast suddenly started charging overages. Hopefully these trials will disappear. In the meantime, I’ve filed a complaint with the FCC in the hopes that caps like this won’t roll out farther. If you live in one of these trial markets and the caps are affecting you, I highly encourage doing the same.


And Comcast? If you really want to tackle the network management problem, stop waiting until Google says they plan to bring Fiber to a city before upgrading your fucking network.

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