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The Peaceful War Against Comcast’s Data Caps: Don’t Like ‘Em? Get Off Your Butt

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

In 2008, Stop the Cap! was launched because the telephone company that serves our hometown of Rochester, N.Y., decided on a whim that it was appropriate to introduce a usage allowance of 5GB per month for their DSL customers. Frontier Communications CEO-at-the-time Maggie Wilderotter defended the idea with the usual claim that the included allowance was more than enough for the majority of Frontier customers. DSL customers already have to endure a lot of issues with Internet service and data caps should certainly not be one of them.

Stop the Cap! drew media attention and focus on the issue of data capping, organized customers for a coordinated pushback, and sufficiently hassled Frontier enough to get them to make the right decision for their customers by quietly rescinding the “allowances.”

As it would turn out, Frontier’s correct decision to suspend usage caps would prove an asset to them less than one year later when Time Warner Cable made it known it would trial its own usage caps in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Greensboro, N.C., and yes… Rochester, N.Y. starting in the summer of 2009.

Time Warner Cable was slightly more generous with its arbitrary allowance — 40GB of usage for $55 a month. Customers already paying a lot for Internet access would now also have an arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit penalty fees with no service improvements in sight. Frontier’s decision the year before to rescind data caps played to their advantage and the company quickly launched advertising in Rochester attacking Time Warner Cable for its data caps, inviting customers to switch to cap-free Internet with Frontier.

Data caps are here!

Data caps are here!

Time Warner Cable’s experiment lasted less than two weeks and was permanently shelved, never to return. Four years later, Comcast began its own usage cap trial that not only continues to this day, but has expanded to cover more than 1,000 zip codes. Capped service areas typically live with a 300GB usage allowance with an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB.

Yesterday at the investor-oriented UBS Global Media and Communications Brokers Conference, Comcast chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh assured Wall Street and shareholders Comcast’s desire to boost revenue from monetizing broadband usage remained an “important contributor” to the company’ goal of “demonstrat[ing] value and derive value from that pricing.”

Cavanagh said the company is using the line ‘heavy users should pay more’ to justify its caps.

“It’s been an experiment that we are using that the key data point behind it is kind of intuitive – ‘10% of our client base uses 50% of capacity.'”

While not ready to announce Comcast’s cap plan would be introduced nationwide, Cavanagh assured investors the experiments will continue as Comcast makes sure that over time it is “compensated for the investments that today’s marketplace requires us to make.”

The difference that makes it possible for Comcast to carry its usage cap experiments forward while Time Warner Cable had to quickly end theirs comes down to one thing: organized customer pushback. Time Warner Cable got heat from relentless, organized opposition in the four cities where caps mattered the most to consumers. Comcast, for the most part, is getting about as much heat as it usually does from customers. It’s time to turn the heat up.

protest

In fighting this battle for the last seven years, I can share with readers what works to force change and what doesn’t:

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company's headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

Generally Useless

  • Complaining about usage caps in the comment sections of websites;
  • Signing online petitions;

Impotent But Potentially Useful in Large Numbers

  • Calling the provider to complain about usage caps;
  • Complaining about usage caps to a provider’s social media team (Facebook, Twitter, etc.);
  • Writing complaints on a company’s open support forum;

Useful, But Unlikely to Bring Immediate Results

  • Writing a letter or making a call complaining to elected officials about usage caps;
  • Advocating for more competition, especially from public/municipal broadband;
  • Filing formal complaints with the FCC and Better Business Bureau;
  • Complaining to state telecom regulators and your state Attorney General (they have no direct authority but can attract political attention);
  • Canceling or downgrading service, blaming usage caps for your decision.

Gasoline on a Lit Fire

  • Organizing a protest in front of the local cable office, with local media given at least a day’s notice and invited to attend;
  • Contacting local newsrooms and asking them to write or air stories about usage caps, offering yourself as an interview subject;
  • Sending local press clippings or links to media coverage to your member of Congress and two senators. Suggest another media-friendly event and invite the elected official to attend and speak, which in turn generates even more media interest.
In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In the battle with Time Warner Cable, we did all the above, but especially the latter, which quickly spun the story out of control of company officials sent to distribute propaganda about usage cap “fairness” and “generous” allowances. We were so relentless, we managed to get under the skin of at least one company spokesperson caught on camera being testy in an on-air interview, which backfired on the company and angered customers even more.

In the case of Comcast, very few of these techniques have been used in the fight against their endless data cap experiment. Customers seem satisfied writing angry comments and signing online petitions. Some have filed complaints with the FCC which are useful measures of hot button issues on which the FCC may act in the last year of the Obama Administration. But there is no detectable organized opposition on the ground to Comcast’s data caps. That may explain why Comcast’s CEO has repeatedly told investors your reactions to Comcast’s caps have been “neutral to slightly positive.” Many Wall Street analysts obviously believe that, because some are advocating the time is right to raise broadband prices even higher. After all, if your reaction to data caps was muted, raising the price another $5 a month probably won’t cost you as a customer either.

It would be very different if these analysts saw regular news reports of small groups of angry customers protesting in front of Comcast offices in different areas of the country. That would likely trigger questions about whether broadband pricing has gotten out of hand. Coverage like that often attracts politicians, who cannot lose opposing a cable company. Once Congress gets interested, the fear regulation might be coming next is usually enough to get companies to pull back and reconsider.

comcast sucksIf you are living with a Comcast data cap and want to see it gone, you can do something about it. Consider organizing your own local movement by tapping fellow angry customers and recruiting local activist groups to the cause. In Rochester, there was no shortage of angry college students and groups ready to protest. Google local progressive political groups, technology clubs, and technology-dependent organizations in your immediate area. Some are likely to be a good resource for building effective public protests, sign-making, and other TV-friendly protest techniques. Contact town governments, the mayor’s office of your city, technology-oriented newspaper columnists, radio talk show/computer support show hosts, etc., to build a mailing list for coordinated announcements about your efforts. Many local officials also oppose data caps.

If a local news reporter has covered tech or consumer issues in the past, many station websites now offer direct e-mail options to reach that reporter. If you give them a good TV-friendly story to cover, they will be back for more coverage as your local protest grows. We helped coordinate and share news about efforts against Time Warner in the cities that were subject to experiments, which also gave us advance notice of their talking points and an ability to offer a consistent response. Several stations carried multiple stories about the cap issue, supported by calls to TV newsrooms to thank them for their coverage and to encourage more.

We realize Comcast’s responsiveness to customers is so atrocious it approaches criminal, but Comcast does respond to Wall Street and shareholders who do not want the company under threat of fact-finding hearings, FCC regulatory action, or Congressional attention. They also don’t want any talk of municipal broadband alternatives. Sidewalk protests in front of the local cable office on the 6 o’clock news is a nightmare.

In the end, Time Warner Cable didn’t want the hassle and got the message — customers despise data caps and want nothing to do with them. Time Warner hasn’t tried compulsory usage caps again. If you want Comcast to get the same message, those living inside Comcast service areas (especially customers) need to lead the charge in their respective communities. We remain willing to help.

Currently there are 10 comments on this Article:

  1. Joe V. says:

    Usage caps need to be eliminated and declared illegal on all wireline internet services.

    • wajfghf says:

      They need to be eliminated across the board (Both wired and Wireless). Give them even an inch and they will try to take a mile.

    • Roger says:

      If, God forbid, they do become a standard part of U.S. internet consumption, than the measuring “devices” (software) needs to be regulated by the public service commission or a similar government entity.

  2. Innovation says:

    If Verizon FiOS is available in your area and you do not like comcasts data caps, move to Verizon FiOS, they never be rude to you. Comcast is the worst internet company.

  3. Wayne says:

    I have been fighting Comcast this fall since they imposed data caps in my area. I have contacted all local, state, and federal elected officials, and so far, I have gotten non committal responses, and one from John Duncan that had nothing to do with my comment. I have complained and will continue to complain to the FCC, and I really like the idea of a protest in front of the comcast office, but they are only open on three days that I work, and close at 5 pm. I would love to get the personal email of every single board member and send them my thoughts on this.
    The tact that seems to be working is that the comcast internet meter is inherently wrong and unreadable, not real time, and if they are going to do this, they should put a accurate meter on my house. I have switched off their awful wireless and am monitoring the household usage closely with real data. I do not have a full months data yet, but I haven’t seen the usage that comcast claims. This is in a household with two adults, and I have restricted my playstation from automatic updates.
    i have talked to comcast security numerous times, I have heard all of their arguments.

  4. Name says:

    I noticed that this site advocates contacting state and federal agencies as a way to complain about data caps.
    However, I think everyone here will also agree that this is mostly useless and nothing happens to make any real changes.

    What you are missing is that many counties and cities have 100% control over the cable companies via “franchise agreements” whereby the county commissioners have influence over the cable company and the city/county can define the EXACT terms a cable company operates under in the city/county municipal code. I have read these terms for a city or two; they often contain conditions regarding how much of the city/county must be served, fees, which distances must have free installation… and basically they can add ANY rule they want and the cable company must agree or not be allowed to have a business there!

    Let what I just said sink in. Local governments can write ANY condition they want for cable companies (into the city/county ordinances).
    They can prohibit any data caps!
    They can force/require Net Neutrality!
    They can require that server use be allowed (except for business only buildings)!

    No state government, no FCC, no federal agency has to get involved. It is very possible for a community to organize and get their county/city to add these conditions to the county/city ordinance that defines cable operator franchise conditions.

    Imagine the impact a site like this could have.
    If there was a site out there that would help a communities to organize and push their county/city to add these conditions to the franchise agreement.

    They could contact many county commissioners about adding those three protections to the franchise agreement.

    Going in person to the democratic or republican county meetings would be an even better way to get the change in effect (since they could present it better that way) and its a better environment for discussing ideas.

    A site dedicated to getting these three concepts added to county/city franchise agreements would stand a major chance of actually making a real change:

    1. The cable operator may not impose a real or artificial cap on the amount of data an end user can send or receive within any time period. This restriction also implies that a cable operator may not “throttle” or alter the speed tier offered after a certain amount of data has been sent or received.
    2. The cable operator must not alter the speed or quality of any IPs, servers, or internet services so that they receive either a downgraded or a preferential treatment. All internet and network traffic must be treated the same. This restriction does not prohibit a cable operator from offering an optional “filtered” service if a customer requests it.
    3. The cable operator shall not prohibit the use of servers, even for commercial use, except under the following conditions:
    3a. Cable operators may prohibit the re-selling of an internet connection, which would also prohibit an individual from using the service to sell server access to others.
    3b. Cable operators may prohibit service or sell a different service for locations that serve ONLY as a place of business where individuals, who do not live there, regularly commute to that location for work.

    This kind of thing does work. I’ve seen it done with another law… the community organized and one-by-one got cities and counties to change their ordinances over time.

  5. Name says:

    The three ordinances:

    1. The cable operator may not impose a real or artificial cap on the amount of data an end user can send or receive within any time period. This restriction also implies that a cable operator may not “throttle” or alter the speed tier offered after a certain amount of data has been sent or received.
    2. The cable operator must not alter the speed or quality of any IPs, servers, or internet services so that they receive either a downgraded or a preferential treatment. All internet and network traffic must be treated the same. This restriction does not prohibit a cable operator from offering an optional “filtered” service if a customer requests it.
    3. The cable operator shall not prohibit the use of servers, even for commercial use, except under the following conditions:
    3a. Cable operators may prohibit the re-selling of an internet connection, which would also prohibit an individual from using the service to sell server access to others.
    3b. Cable operators may prohibit service or sell a different service for locations that serve ONLY as a place of business where individuals, who do not live there, regularly commute to that location for work.
    The rational for this condition is twofold: 1) It is in the best interest of promoting the computer and internet industry itself, for many computer and internet companies relied on the ability of individuals to experiment with servers from their home, to create startups from home, and to generally learn from being allowed to have their own server to experiment with. 2) A second reason being that as more services rely on the internet, people will require servers in their home to provide new and exciting things.

  6. Name says:

    Sidenotes:

    * Your cable bill should tell you who is the franchise owner (if it’s your city, county, or state).
    * In many states, the “franchise agreement” is done by a county or a city.
    * The rules for the franchise are written into the county’s municipal code. You can read all the rules yourself by looking up your city/county’s municipal code.
    * The state municipal code often gives significant power to a count commissioner… The code often allows you (a cable customer) to file a dispute with your county commissioner and they are actually REQUIRED to resolve the dispute!!
    * A cable company must renew the franchise agreement to continue operating in the count/city.
    * Cities already have many rules they require the cable operator to follow. Again read your municipal code to see for yourself.

    All of this means a county or city could easily force the cable companies to do these three things by adding them to the municipal code!

  7. Deric says:

    Would it be possible to promote a nationwide protest? Have every person who is interested protest outside their local Comcast office on the same day, say three months from now. That way everyone has time to recruit and spread information, as well as get the medias attention.

    I don’t know how many people in my area are affected, or for how long, so I don’t know how many people I could get to join me. But if everyone hit at once across the nation, it could make a pretty strong point.

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