Data Caps Must Change!

My recent editorial about the future of Netflix briefly touched on the relationship between streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and ISPs like Comcast. There is a huge, obvious problem with this relationship being overlooked by practically everyone in the industry, and I intend to discuss it here.

Most of the content I view is streamed into my household. This includes television shows and movies. The technology hype train would like you to believe that I am a model for the consumer of the future. Disc-based entertainment, while still in heavy use, is largely frowned upon by technology advocates and industry spokespeople. Physical discs are to streaming what audio cassettes were to CDs in the late nineties.

ISPs like Comcast enforce monthly data caps on all of their customers. A data cap says that if the total amount of data you upload and download for a single month exceeds 250 Gb, then your account can be suspended for a year. In areas like mine, where Verizon Fios and AT&T Uverse services aren't compatible with the existing infrastructure, there is literally no where else to turn.

There is one way around this. If you are a Comcast business customer (that is, if you have supplied Comcast with the proper paperwork and a taxpayer identification number proving you run a business out of your home), then you gain access to a more expensive plan that raises this data cap. However, most domestic households are not in a position, either legally or financially, to access business plans.

250 Gb is a lot of data. If you spend a typical month just browsing the internet for hours a day, playing online games and downloading songs and files, and have multiple devices switched on, the chances of you exceeding this cap is still exceedingly rare. Comcast even claims that 99% of its customers, even if they were to multiply their data usage several times over, would still not even approach breaking the data cap ceiling.

Streaming video content, however, gobbles bandwidth. Watching just a couple hours a night of standard definition Hulu content on a television, for instance, exceeds the data usage rate by an extra 20 percent above the maximum allotted data rate.

ISPs like Comcast offer tiered plans for all customers, but those tiers only determine the bandwidth speed, not the total allowed data. For instance, it costs significantly more per month to get a good 15-25 Mbs download speed than it does to get a 8-12 Mbps speed.

This issue could be alleviated if ISPs began offering more expensive 'streaming' plans with 500 Gb data caps for the month as opposed to 250 Gb. These tiered streaming plans might cost an extra 25-$30/month, but it would ensure that no amount of streaming would ever run the risk of having the customer booted off the ISP.

Comcast's monopolistic ubiquity in this area and others also ensures that if you screw up their data cap and run afoul of their enforcers, you have literally no other game in town. You are, in effect, 'banished' from having access to a home LAN. Comcast, additionally, is losing out on your business.

I think ISP executives need to face the facts about streaming. It's a bandwidth-heavy service, without a doubt. Comcast and other services still cling to the outdated notion that customers who exceed 250 Gb/month must be pirating video and software. Well, guess again. I'm a law abiding citizen on a secure, encrypted network. I don't game online. I don't download much, if anything, beyond a few songs a month. I only watch a few hours of streaming content a night, and every month I have to really watch the data cap for fear of exceeding it. This is the reality of being head of the curve.

For eschewing disc-based services, like many entertainment industry seers and technology geeks are urging we all do, customers like me pay an unnecessary price by having to worry about immobile and antiquated data caps. The local ISPs simply refuse to even meet the curve and offer internet plans that confront total data use as well as bandwidth speed. They refuse to acknowledge increasingly common services that make their data caps look foolish. They refuse to offer non-business customers an alternative.

ISPs, like other monopolies who face virtually no competition, have no incentive to adapt to or even acknowledge reality.


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