Coronavirus could force ISPs to abandon data caps forever

Devin Coldewey

Pressure from the global pandemic has broadband companies loosening the arbitrary restrictions on the connections users pay for — and this may be the beginning of the end for the data caps we've lived in fear of for decades. Here's why.

The coronavirus threat and official policies of "social distancing" are leading millions to stay home, doing meetings via video chat and probably watching Netflix and YouTube the rest of the time. That means a big uptick in bytes going through the tubes, both simultaneously and cumulatively.

ISPs, leery of repeating Verizon's memorable gaffe of cutting off service during an emergency, are proposing a variety of user-friendly changes to their policies. Comcast is boosting the bandwidth of its low-income Internet Essentials customers to levels that actually qualify as broadband under FCC rules. AT&T is suspending data caps for all its customers until further notice. Verizon's Fios doesn't have data caps, but the company announced it has added $500 million to its 5G rollout plans. Wait, how does that help? Unclear, but the company "stands ready" for increases in traffic. (Disclosure: Verizon Media owns TechCrunch, but this does not affect our editorial coverage.)

Elsewhere in the world ISPs are taking similar actions, either voluntarily or at the request of the state. In India, for instance, ACT Fibernet has bumped everyone up to 300 Mbps for no cost.

There are two simple truths at play here.

The first is that any company that sends its subscriber a $150 overage fee because they had to work from home for a month and ran over their data cap is going to be radioactive. The optics on that are so bad that my guess is most companies are quietly setting forgiveness policies in place to prevent it from happening — though of course it probably will anyway.

The second is that these caps are completely unnecessary, existing only as a way to squeeze more money from subscribers. Data caps just don't matter any more. As I pointed out during the whole zero-rating debacle, the very fact that the limits can be lifted at will or certain high-traffic categories (such as a broadband company's own streaming TV channels) can be exempted fundamentally beggars the concept of these caps.

Think about it: If the internet provider can even temporarily lift the data caps, then there is definitively enough capacity for the network to be used without those caps. If there's enough capacity, then why did the caps exist in the first place?

Answer: Because they make money.

As with other nonsensical and aggravating fees and practices, ISPs get away with this because they amount to regional monopolies or duopolies and are all running the same basic set of grifts for extra cash on top of your subscription fee.

That may be changing with the coronavirus, because after this very public exception to them it will be obvious to everyone that there is no reason for the caps to exist — including the FCC.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

For years, ISPs have made excuses that certain "bad actors" and superusers would abuse the system and suck up all the internet, causing congestion and slowdowns for everyone else. Unsurprisingly, this never actually happened, or if it did, it happened many, many years ago when broadband was in its infancy and it was possible to hog the line in your neighborhood.

Now, with 100-megabit and gigabit connections becoming more common by the month (to those on the right side of the digital divide, anyway), you'd be hard pressed to max out your own connection, let alone everyone else's. In fact, the only person who would notice you'd eaten up 50 times more data than your neighbor would be your ISP.

Yet, strangely, if you were to use this high-speed connection steadily, you'd be punished on extraordinarily short notice. Comcast's gigabit data plans, for instance, come with a 1-terabye cap. At top speed, you'd hit it in less than three hours. Doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?

These facts will be material if, in a couple months, the ISPs attempt to re-establish data caps. If the entire country was using the hell out of their connection for months with no ill effects — and no ISP will admit that their superior network couldn't handle it — why should there be limits at all?

Of course, this is only speculation for now. But once someone like Commissioner Rosenworcel starts talking publicly about this sort of thing, it tends to only go forward, absent serious opposition by the opposing party or industry groups. When it comes to data caps, it's hard for anyone to justify their continued existence, and the coronavirus situation will only make this more clear.

Crucially, once it becomes clear that data caps are on the outs, it will suddenly become the cool new idea that simultaneously occurs to every ISP that a few months ago was happy to collect overages. I can picture the ad copy now: "What data caps? Binge care-free with the new Freedom Plus plan from AT&T." "Unlimited data — yes, we mean it."

Well, they can call it whatever they want, as long as it's free and the limits are lifted — the way it should have been all this time.