FCC to Take Fresh Look at ISP Broadband Data Caps

The FCC Wants Your Feedback About Broadband Data Caps

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) aims to gain a deeper understanding of why internet service providers (ISPs) continue to impose data caps on consumer usage, despite their demonstrated technical capability to offer unlimited data plans.

In a press release, the FCC announced that it wants to take a fresh look at the practice of broadband service providers setting limits on your data, even charging you additional fees if you happen to go over your limit.

“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. It’s time the FCC take a fresh
look at how data caps impact consumers and competition.”

With AI everywhere, 4K streaming, group conferencing, quantum computing, and remote work, the need for data has never been greater. FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel emphasized that internet access is no longer a luxury but a necessity for everyone, regardless of their location. When individuals need access to the internet, they are not concerned about the amount of data; they simply want their tasks to be completed.

Broadband service providers put caps on data where there is no demonstrated need for it. Consumers advocacy groups have complained to the FCC about these restrictions for years saying they are just part of a predatory pricing scheme.

Consumer opinions about data restrictions are requested and they are ready to hear your broadband horror stories. The feedback form is notably found in the complaint section of the FCC site.

FCC to take a fresh look at broadband data caps
Data Caps Experience Form. Credit: FCC



Several broadband providers, including Comcast Xfinity, Cox, and AT&T, enforce data caps that result in additional fees when users exceed their designated limits. In contrast, providers such as Google Fiber, CenturyLink, and Spectrum do not impose data caps or offered an alternative pricing structure--but that doesn't mean they don't want data caps.

Charter Says Data Caps are Popular with Consumers

Spectrum, owned by Charter Communications has made a case for re-institution of its price caps and petitioned the FCC to restore its data restrictions. They claim in the petition that data caps and similar pricing practices are "popular" with consumers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous American broadband ISPs, along with their international counterparts, opted to temporarily or permanently refrain from enforcing data limits on their customers' data transfer capacity. This decision was prompted by the sudden surge in remote work, video conferencing, and education, which placed an unprecedented strain on consumer networks.

In March 2020, over 800 US ISPs and telecoms pledged not to disconnect customers or impose overdue fees on those facing economic hardship. Some providers have re-instituted caps yet the reasons for it appear arbitrary.

ISPs worldwide took similar measures to support telehealth and remote learning initiatives during the pandemic and avoid negative publicity associated with cutting off access during an emergency.

Starlink Delays Introduction of Data Caps on Its Service, Twice

Starlink satellite internet service is facing congestion issues due to soaring demand. There is a demonstrated and practical reason to restrict data usage. For Starlink, performance of the entire system demonstrably goes down with increased individual usage. Yet SpaceX has put off implementing a cap for the second time since December.  As Starlink scales up, individual data usage should become less of a problem. If they solve the free-rider problem by alternative means than a data cap, it will be a victory for Starlink and its customers.


Starlink fair use policy
Credit: SpaceX

With the advent of machine learning, the quantum internet, spatial computing, 4K streaming and gaming, the technology of hyperconnected networks (IoT,AI,Web3) is data-dependent. The internet or Metaverse, will require that companies choose to price their service based on reality not arbitrary or predatory pricing practices. Two senators made a convincing albeit unsuccessful attempt to ban predatory pricing by internet service providers last year.

Can A Deadlocked FCC Do Anything About Data Caps?

It is worth mentioning, the FCC is politically deadlocked with its four commissioners. A fifth commissioner, however, was appointed last month, a seat that has been vacant for two years. The White House also initiated nearly a billion dollars in grants to go toward building high-speed, affordable internet infrastructure to rural communities that lack it.

The fifth commissioner, Anna Lopez, a former telecom attorney, will break the FCC deadlock.  So perhaps a "fresh look" at data caps is meant literally, that is of course assuming Congress doesn't reject her like the last nominee. If the FCC isn't able to force regulation,  It will be interesting to see where the regulation changes come from but it is very likely something is going to change soon.



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