Supporters of net neutrality have long argued that content on the Internet is at risk of being available to the highest bidder without intervention via government regulation. Up until now, it has focused on the ability of ISPs to control content providers’ access to Internet users. While the debate continues, ISPs are taking advantage of the delay to find alternative ways to control the gateway and make a profit.
It seems like Comcast is looking at the past to move into the future.
In the early 1990s, using the Internet for non-work related purposes was just beginning to come into fashion. Dialing in via a phone line was the only way to connect, and it didn’t come free. Services such as Prodigy and AOL would charge a monthly fee to use email and explore the world as created by them via message boards and chat rooms from the comfort of a Compaq computer. Other services had similar plans, charging hourly rates, which were higher during peak times.
For many users this became an expensive proposition.
It was quite a deal when the price dropped in 1995 to $9.95 for those five hours a month, though per hour charges would start to add up. Finally, unlimited was introduced the next year and for $19.95 a month, hundreds of thousands of people would log on excited to hear a connection instead of busy tone and the message “You’ve got mail!” This would be the norm for several years until broadband access and free email service became more widely available.
Now, Comcast would like to charge you like it’s 1995, except instead of charging by the hour, they are charging by the gigabyte.
Early in 2014, Comcast quietly introduced a pilot program in specific markets across the country. Customers using the XFINITY Internet service were notified that they had a monthly cap of 300 gigabytes of Internet usage each month for the same amount they were paying for unlimited use. To put that in layman terms, to stream a high definition movie, it would take approximately 3 gigabytes per hour. This means if you did nothing else, such as email, browsing, or gaming, you could view roughly 50 two hour high definition movies a month.
Yes, that’s a lot.
For the average user, their Internet usage is spent browsing the Internet, viewing cat videos, streaming music, or catching up on the latest news. These activities take up much less data and it would be difficult for most customers to exceed the cap, even if they view several movies or TV shows a month. The problem arises, however, for larger households with several devices using the Internet and different levels of use. That same three gigabytes per hour has to be shared by four, five, or more people, making it much easier to reach or exceed the cap.
Comcast says that 98 percent of their customers use much less than the 300 gigabyte cap. According to them, the plan was developed as a way to reign in heavy users (like the ones who would have the time to view 50 movies a month). While they represent a very small percentage of users, the company is testing the data caps as a way to control the amount of data flowing to protect the quality of service for everyone. This is much like the argument ISPs use for controlling how sites like Netflix access customers (i.e. slowing down the streams). Now they want to control how much customers access Netflix.
If it seems like it’s all about the streaming, well, it is.
For the past several years, consumers have been dropping cable as the price continues to rise. More people are “cutting the cord” and moving to Internet only services. With so many options to stream or download, many are finding it more cost effective and easier to adjust their viewing habits. Not to mention, many of these services are offering their own original content that can’t be viewed on cable. Even premium services like HBO and Showtime are exploring stand alone subscription services that would be available online. For companies like Comcast that also provide Internet services, this means they need to make up the revenue somewhere.
The company does offer flexible data plans for light users in some areas. For customers that use 5GB or less per month, they can sign up for the plan and receive a small credit on their bill. They charge $1 per gigabyte overage charge on these plans, as well as a $10 per 50GB for those in need of more data.
For customers not in any of these test markets, binge watching on your favorite streaming service is still safe. Comcast expects to take the program nationwide in 2 – 5 years. It should be noted that Comcast isn’t saying customers can’t use the Internet as much as they want, it will just cost them more if they go over the limit. Other companies are looking into similar programs, including charging more for use during peak times. Just like the way it used to be.