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The Magic of Broadband Competition: Sparklight Without Competition vs. Sparklight With Competition

America’s most costly large cable internet service provider is Sparklight, formerly known as Cable One. Its internet plans are usually data-capped and it barely offers new customers a pricing break before high regular prices apply. Sparklight primarily services small cities and towns, many income-challenged, in the middle of the country. Customers do not have much to rave about, because Sparklight puts its own profits far ahead of its customers. The cable operator was among the first to slap on data caps and was the nation’s most aggressive at getting rid of costly cable television channels.

About the only thing that does move Sparklight’s pricing is the presence of a formidable competitor. In Meridian and Garden City, Ida., TDS Fiber (formerly TDS Telecom) has been bringing gigabit fiber to the home service to area residents at prices low enough to motivate Sparklight customers to abandon the cable company. That motivated Sparklight to improve their plans and lower prices.

First, let’s examine the internet rate card for ordinary Sparklight customers typically stuck choosing either the cable company or DSL from Frontier, AT&T, or Windstream:

Sparklight regular pricing nationwide

Notice the entry-level internet plan (100/10 Mbps) costs $55 a month, does not mention the $10.50/mo modem rental fee (required if you choose the company’s Wi-Fi service), an internet service surcharge of $2.75/mo (not charged in all areas), and a stingy data cap of just 350 GB, which is at least 100 GB less than what the average U.S. broadband household now consumes each month. Internet overlimit fees are $10 for each additional block of 100GB of data in excess of your allowance, up to a maximum of $50 a month. Unlimited service costs an extra $40 a month.

When you add it all up: for an unlimited (100/10 Mbps) internet service plan with in-home Wi-Fi, Sparklight charges $108.25 a month.

If you happen to live in a competitive service area, such as Meridian and Garden City, Ida., speeds are faster, prices are lower, and data caps are nowhere to be found:

Pricing for Sparklight in Meridian and Garden City, Ida.

Customers still face a $10.50/mo charge to lease a cable modem, and that $2.75/mo internet surcharge fee might also apply.

The prospect of competition could cut dramatically into company profits, which is one reason telecom companies are fiercely lobbying the Biden Administration not to fund municipal broadband projects or supply funds to a new competitor as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Plan.

Comcast Postpones Data Caps in Northeast Until July

Comcast on Wednesday said it will give its customers a six month reprieve on implementing its 1.2 TB data cap after state legislators in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania’s attorney general complained about the prospect of families paying more for internet access during a pandemic.

“As Pennsylvanians continue to navigate this pandemic, we know millions are relying on the internet for school and work more than ever. This is not the time to change the rules when it comes to internet data usage and increase costs,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “My office negotiated with Comcast to delay the implementation of these overage charges and waive any early termination fees for customers who opt out through December 2021. We also limited the impact of these changes on low-income households.”

The postponement applies to Comcast broadband customers in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

In addition to a delayed introduction of data caps, Comcast has also agreed to:

  • not implement any data caps for low-income customers enrolled in Comcast’s Internet Essentials discount internet program for the rest of 2021;
  • waive any early termination fees for customers planning to switch providers and signed a contract before November 2020;
  • delay any overlimit fees until July, which will first be seen on customers’ August bills;
  • more prominently disclose the fact Comcast has a data cap in its marketing materials.

Pennsylvania consumers concerned about how Comcast’s data threshold may affect them should file a complaint with the Office of Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Comcast also reminded customers the data cap postponement announced today only applies to customers in the northeastern U.S. states noted above.

AT&T Leaves Data Caps and Overlimit Fees on Hold Until September 30

Phillip Dampier July 1, 2020 Consumer News, Data Caps Comments Off on AT&T Leaves Data Caps and Overlimit Fees on Hold Until September 30

AT&T has announced it will continue offering unlimited internet to all wired residential customers, with no overlimit fees, through Sept. 30:

“You’ve got a lot of things on your mind right now, so we’re going to help carry the load by continuing to waive home internet data overage charges for AT&T Internet customers through September 30. That means new and existing AT&T Fiber and AT&T Internet customers can continue to video conference, binge shows and movies, play video games, etc., and won’t see overage charges on their home internet bill.”

AT&T had usage capped its wired home internet customers at different levels, depending on the grade of service:

These usage caps are on hold until Sept. 30. Customers will not incur overlimit fees until after that date.

Cox Returning to Usage Caps, But With a Bigger Data Allowance

Phillip Dampier June 29, 2020 Consumer News, Cox, Data Caps 5 Comments

Cox will return to data capping its broadband customers on Wednesday, July 1 but with a bigger usage allowance from now on.

Most Cox customers now face a data cap of 1 TB (1,000 GB) per month. Starting this week, Cox will raise the allowance 25% to 1.25 TB.

“Since the start of the pandemic we provided unlimited data to all customers because we did not know the impact that learn and work from home might have on our customers,” Cox said in an email to Light Reading. “After reviewing data consumption since the coronavirus crisis, we know that nearly 90 percent of customers would not have been charged for going over their 1 TB data plan.”

The other 10% of customers would find at least a $10 additional charge on their bill for an additional allotment of 50 GB of data usage, and another $10 for each additional block of 50 GB. Data caps and overlimit fees are arbitrary and do not reflect the actual cost an internet provider incurs for usage. But it can be a shock when customers open their bill.

 

10% of Homes Now Exceed Comcast/AT&T/Cox’s 1 TB Usage Cap; Average Use Now 402.5 GB

Phillip Dampier May 4, 2020 Broadband "Shortage", Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Data Caps Comments Off on 10% of Homes Now Exceed Comcast/AT&T/Cox’s 1 TB Usage Cap; Average Use Now 402.5 GB

Note that data usage is slightly higher for users with “flat rate billing (FRB)” plans vs. those stuck with “usage-based billing (UBB).” (Source: OpenVault)

A record 10 percent of U.S. households now exceed 1 TB of data usage per month, putting some customers at risk of overlimit fees for exceeding data allowances that are usually enforced by AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and other telecom companies. Those caps are temporarily suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

OpenVault, which collects average data usage from several service providers, reports a dramatic increase in the number of homes it designates as “power users” that consume at least 1 TB of data each month. In the first quarter of 2019, 4.2% of customers regularly exceeded 1 TB of usage. During the same period this year, that number shot up 138% to 10% of customers. “Extreme power users” that consume 2+ TB of data increased a record 215% from just one year ago, now representing 1.2% of broadband households. Last year it was 0.38%.

Overall total broadband usage across all users increased 47% in the first quarter of 2020, reaching an average of 402.5 GB a month. But that number mostly comprises average usage before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to work from home. OpenVault originally predicted in January 2020 that monthly usage would reach 425 GB by the end of 2020. But with most Americans sheltering at home, measurements now suggest average broadband usage already exceeds that, reaching a record high of 460 GB in April.

“Nearly all the growth in broadband usage we would have expected for 2020 has now been achieved in the first quarter, with much of it concentrated in the last two weeks of the quarter,” OpenVault reported.

Despite usage growth, broadband providers in the United States are universally confident their networks are more than capable of sustaining the increased traffic. In fact, many providers report a spike in new customers, upgrades to higher speed tiers, and at least one — Spectrum, is confident enough of its network capacity to give away two months of broadband service to households with school-age children for free.

NCTA–The Internet & Television Association reports the biggest increases in broadband traffic are occurring on the upstream side, likely because of video teleconferencing. Although downstream traffic also spiked after the pandemic forced many businesses to close their offices, that traffic has flattened out and most recently has even decreased slightly.

Source: NCTA

Broadband providers may have lost key arguments to support reimposing data allowances and usage caps after the pandemic eases. Not only have broadband networks managed dramatic spikes in traffic with no significant difficulties, there are no signs of any “data tsunamis” in the future, even as broadband usage growth exceeds predictions. NCTA reports that 99.8% of the time broadband providers had “ample” or “excess” capacity available, not only to sustain current traffic levels but also potential future spikes in traffic. Peak traffic usage reaching levels where reduced capacity was available was identified just 0.2% of the time, causing a “minor impact on performance and customer experience.”

The current crisis is likely to bring a flood of new revenue to many broadband companies, even without usage overlimit fees. Since the pandemic began, OpenVault reports a 3.75% growth in premium-priced gigabit speed upgrades, up 97% from the same time last year.  In the New York City area, gigabit service subscriptions at Altice/Optimum increased 56% as many workers began to telecommute.

The biggest challenge the cable broadband industry faces as a result of this year’s usage growth is a need to accelerate plans already under development to increase upload speeds. Much of the recent traffic growth came from upstream traffic, which is cable broadband’s biggest Achilles’ Heel. Cable broadband networks devote most available bandwidth to downloads, with only a small fraction devoted to upload speed. Cable companies are expected to modestly increase upload speeds in a few months and will eventually deploy the next DOCSIS standard, supporting far faster upload speeds, beginning sometime next year.

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