As broadband caps turn 4, it’s time for the FCC to take action

In the four years since Comcast implemented the country’s first real broadband cap (it took effect on Oct. 1, 2008) the percentage of subscribers with caps on their broadband service has risen to 64 percent. Meanwhile, the FCC only began formally wondering if data caps might need some sort of oversight, or at least sort of qualifier in the last few months.

This is a dereliction of duty from the agency that’s supposed to ensure that broadband is available across the country, an agency whose chairman gives countless speeches emphasizing how important broadband is in the home and as a source for innovation. Yet as the basic pricing for broadband service has changed, the FCC has not kept up. It hasn’t distributed data on the consumers affected, established any sort of independent group to ensure that ISPs were tracking customers’ broadband usage fairly and doesn’t even insist that ISPs who implement caps provide meters to their customers.

And then there are the harder questions about why such caps are justified in the first place. But the FCC has been content to let this experiment in data caps play out with its tacit approval for the last four years, while more and more Americans became affected by them. There are signals that the agency may be waking up to the problem, so here’s what the FCC at a minimum needs to do if caps are going to be a way of life going forward.

1) If ISPs cap broadband, the FCC should track how those caps affect consumers.

How much data do you use each month? Most of us don’t know. How many people get caught by caps? No one knows. That’s right. The FCC doesn’t track data on how many people exceed their caps, nor does it distribute data on how much broadband people use each month, despite having a program that puts routers in people’s homes to measure for other broadband quality metrics such as speed and latency.

When asked about the growth of broadband caps, and if the agency planned to collect more data an agency spokesman declined to comment on the record. However, in a series of notices and speeches made in the last six months, the FCC has started asking questions about how it should think about caps in relation to broadband cost and quality. It has not asked or indicated that it plans on tracking information about how many people are snared by caps.

The FCC does have access to data from corporations that track broadband usage, and it collects data on average data use by speed tier, but it doesn’t know who or how often people are affected by caps. However, according to Sandvine, a company that sells deep-packet inspection equipment to ISPs, during the first half of 2012 on North American wireline networks, the median usage was 10.3GB, and the average usage was 32.1 GB. Note that this number includes Canada, where broadband caps are generally lower. Back in 2010 Cisco noted that worldwide monthly consumption averaged 14.5 gigabytes per month, based on data it collected from its ISP customers.

2) Would you like a meter with that cap?

When Comcast first launched its cap in 2008, there was outrage over the first U.S. implementation of a cap, even though Comcast’s cap at 250 GB was far more generous than those proposed by others at the time (Frontier had proposed a 5 GB cap while Time Warner Cable had proposed a tier that began at 5 GB and went up to 40 GB initially). But outrage moved quickly from the existence of a relatively large cap to the lack of any way for a user to measure their broadband use.

Comcast eventually rolled out a meter to its customers, but other ISPs — notably AT&T — still haven’t managed to give their customers the tools to measure their own consumption. AT&T defends its lack of meters by saying that it sends customers notification emails letting people know when they hit the 65, 90 and 100 percent threshold, but that’s like having your fuel gauge show you a blinking light when your tank is 65 percent empty and then 90 percent empty before the car just stops. Some people drive that way, but most of us would probably like the full picture.

When asked in general about the lack of meters and about AT&T’s strategy in particular, the FCC declined to comment on the record. However, one is free to file a complaint over a lack of meters with the FCC. The best rules to use would be the Open Internet Order, which most of us know as the network neutrality rules. Those rules require an ISP to be transparent about their network management practices. The FCC would then have to determine if AT&T is not being transparent enough about its caps by not including a meter.

Is anyone watching how ISPs cap?

3) If I have a meter, is it accurate?

Comcast’s meter was later than expected in part because it was getting a third-party to certify the accuracy of the tool. Time Warner Cable also had a third-party company ensure the accuracy of its meter, but there’s no rule or oversight to ensure that ISPs that deploy meters have made sure they work as advertised. The FCC doesn’t check meters for accuracy and it doesn’t require ISPs to certify them with a third-party. Obviously, if a customer has a complaint, they can file it with the FCC, but this Wild West approach, with no promise or rules around enforcement, doesn’t help the consumer.

The FCC again declined to comment on the record about whether it would eventually track and ensure the accuracy of meters, and also demurred when asked about the need for any sort of data collection around the topic. Those with the time and energy can use an alternate gigabyte counter on their router or an external software program such as NetWorx and see if it matches up with what their ISP tells them. If it doesn’t, the FCC would probably be happy to take your complaint.

So now what?

The FCC wasn’t the only organization sleeping on the job as data caps crept over the land. When I asked avid broadband users to send me their usage, I quickly discovered that most people don’t use the meters provided to them and have no idea how much data they consume. Outside of a few very public examples of people going over their caps, it doesn’t seem that most Americans are hitting a ceiling: at least for now.

But in implementing these caps, ISPs have changed the internet industry, as I lay out in this accompanying list of which ISPs are capping data and how they are doing it. So get out there and check your broadband usage. Then maybe it’s time to file a complaint with the FCC, or at least with your ISP. Maybe it’s not too late to get some accountability and maybe even action around data caps.