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Summary:

More than 64 percent of broadband subscribers in the U.S. have a cap on their usage. Are you one of them? This story shows which ISPs are capping your broadband, the structure of those plans and explains why caps are a big business.

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One Nov. 15, 2013 we published an updated version of this chart. It can be found here.

Broadband caps are spreading across the U.S., and even if Comcast did recently raise its cap of four years from 250 GB a month to 300 GB, the growth of usage based broadband is a negative and insidious trend that could hurt our ability to innovate. So I’ve documented which ISPs have caps, and how they have structured them in the chart below, as a way to help people understand who is capping their service and why. The chart contains the top ISPs, and covers more than 80 percent of actual subscribers.

What we talk about when we talk about caps.

The rise in caps has let ISPs influence the internet in subtle ways — most of which seem harmful to innovation. The first is to take away the idea that wireline broadband is an unlimited service, despite the ability of smaller ISPs to build out networks that don’t come equipped with caps. As you can see from the chart below, most of the ISPs are implementing overage charges associated with their caps. This isn’t really about managing their networks for congestion. If it were, they’d implement a different type of pricing model that cost users more to surf at peak times. No, this is about protecting their entrenched TV businesses as well as keeping the price for service high, despite the decreasing costs to send traffic over the network.

It’s also about grabbing more of the profits from the growth in internet services such as Netflix and Google, although caps take out those frustrations on users as opposed to the over-the-top providers. Instead of providing faster speeds for users and encouraging the growth of services that would require users to upgrade to those speeds, ISPs have taken their control of the last mile and are charging for bytes. So instead of paying more for better service, customers will pay more for what they use. This is a model that works for certain industries (think gasoline and electricity) but when it comes to encouraging more usage and innovation on the internet, the utility model seems short-sighted. Other ISPs may be thinking this same way.

For example, what if Intel had told game developers or Microsoft not to write software that would stress its chips — or penalized programmers for every megahertz of performance they used over a certain threshold? We’d end up with crappy software running on slower machines. Instead Intel encouraged people to write software for its chips and invested billions in making them faster so people would upgrade. Along the way it opened up market after market for the PC. Utility industries aren’t typically hotbeds of innovation.

The Federal Communications Commission, which is charged with tracking the spread and quality of U.S. broadband, has so far been quiet on this issue, not even collecting data to track how the shift to capped broadband has affected users, much less the industry. That may be changing. But it’s time that we ask if we want the internet to look like the utility or a source of continued innovation.

U.S. Broadband Caps Detailed
ISP Cap Details Exceptions Overage costs
Comcast 300GB per month Comcast suspended its cap in May 2012 after raising it to 300GB. It’s unclear what form the cap will take. none Comcast is testing an overage fee that lets you pay $10 for 50 GB more.
AT&T 250GB or 150 GB per month Subscribers to AT&T’s faster Uverse product have a 250 GB cap while those subscribing to basic DSL have a 150 GB cap. none Customers pay $10 for 50 GB
TWC no
Verizon no
CenturyLink 150 GB per month to 250 GB per month Plans with speeds of 1.5Mbps have a 150 GB cap. Plans with speeds greater than 1.5Mbps have 250 GB cap. none None, you’re cut off.
Cox 30GB-400GB per month Faster tiers have higher caps. none None, you’re cut off.
Charter 100GB – 500 GB per month Faster tiers have higher caps. none None, you’re cut off.
Cablevision no
Frontier no
Windstream no
SuddenLink 150GB to 350 GB per month Faster tiers have higher caps. none Customers pay $10 for 50 GB.
MediaCom 150 GB to 999 GB per month Faster tiers have higher caps. none Customers pay $10 for 50 GB.
Cable One 1GB, 50 GB and 100 GB per month Caps depend on the type of plan one chooses; Economy, Preferred Upgrade, Elite Upgrade Usage from midnight to 8AM doesn’t count against the cap for Preferred and Elite upgrade. Economy users can download from noon to midnight without it counting against the cap. Economy users pay $10 per gigabyte. Preferred and Elite upgrade users pay .50¢ for each additional GB.
FairPoint no
Cincinnati Bell no
  1. I have Time Warner now, but might be switching to U-Verse. I’ll hvae the 250 GB cap. Hopefully, that’s enough. :3

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    1. Might want to do some research. I JUST got U-Verse (after switching from a local WiiMax ISP) and it’s pretty damn clear that my torrents are being throttled. I still connect to them, but I’m not getting much higher than 75kb/sec on my 3mbs connection.

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      1. The torrent limits could be due to limited connection speeds of the seeders/peers or congestion on AT&T’s network. Though if you are really interested to check if throttling is happening you could run some of the tools over at measurement lab http://www.measurementlab.net/.

        For those with a longer term interest in broad band performance you could look into buying a router and joining Project Bismark http://projectbismark.net/ to create tools to monitor broadband services.

        I joined the uCap experiment to track my data use and it was quite surprising. 4 days and over 150 Gb used already… cloud backups, streaming video, and working on the Internet eats up bandwidth quickly. I am an early adopter and I should not be punished for figuring out how the pipes can benefit my life. Any cap would prevent me from innovating, participating in volunteer computing (giving free computing for research) and many other activities that benefit the greater economy than people know. These caps hinder innovation and the greater community at the price of creating more profits for gatekeeper companies where there is duopoly in most places.

        The FCC needs to track weigh in on this and protect consumers and the greater economy of a connected society.

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    2. That’s the main reason I didn’t switch to U-Verse. I had it all set up and canceled a few days before they came out for the install. I won’t go with an ISP that has a cap. S ofor better or worse right now, I’m sticking with Time Warner with my paltry 30 down 2 Up ;o)

      @Billy Bob you should definitely look into getting a VPN service such as BT Guard if you’re a torrent regular. ISPs will throttle you as sson as they see torrent traffic, doesn’t matter what you’re downloading. Better to mask it using a service that doesn’t keep logs.

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  2. Phillip Dampier Monday, October 1, 2012

    Frontier has data caps in certain markets in Minnesota and Elk Grove, Calif. The company usually sends out letters to customers exceeding 100-250GB a month and offers to continue their service for up to $249.99 a month if they continue that level of usage:

    http://stopthecap.com/2010/04/14/frontiers-5gb-cap-is-back-now-includes-the-ultimate-in-internet-overcharging-249-99-a-month-for-250gb/

    http://stopthecap.com/2010/12/13/frontiers-merry-xmas-you-used-too-much-internet-now-pay-99-99-a-month-or-lose-it/

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  3. Your analogies are wrong Stacy. They are based on the assumption that backhaul and providing the service of “the internet” is basically free…. that somehow its in the interests of the Telco’s to continually invest in the infrastructure while seeing their ARPU’s decline….

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    1. Paul, the cost for last mile delivery per Mbps has dropped dramatically with DOCSIS 3. As far as backhaul/peering the cost of peering is somewhere around 80 cents per Mbps for a Tier 1 (and really its free thats just the cost for facilities, switching gear, cross connects fiber runs etc. Bandwidth has been in a free fall of at least 30% per year for some time now.

      Given standard over subscription ratio’s the cost of goods sold on wholesale transit is kind of a farce, and reading the balance sheets on these vendors its clear this cost is going down every year. Now the fact that their ARPU’s are in decline because of Cell phones, and web content replacing POTS and Cable TV, that’s not an excuse for them to abuse their last mile monopoly position to choke out competition. If they can not evolve their services to find new revenue streams (like CDN hosting) then their shareholders should be mad at their lack of competitive vision.

      Considering many of these companies are the same companies that stole 200 Billion Dollars and our Broadband future I really have no pity for them. Cap’s are corporate welfare at its finest…

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      1. John if you’re correct and running a broadband business is dirt-cheap, one wonder why everyone doesn’t get into the business? What are we missing here?

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      2. @txpatriot, because in 99 percent of cases(actual figure) Local governments have granted monopolies to existing Cable companies for a given area. You could try to make a cable company if you wanted, but good luck getting a license for it.

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      3. Does anyone here know where I can get zip code (or whatever’s avail) level broadband pricing data for the U.S.? Also, I’ve been trying to find the current broadband data speed capacity of both lit fiber metro and backbone/core networks in the U.S. Any ideas where to get that data?

        I want to organize a group of data crunchers and possibly form a data challenge on kaggle.com to uncover this data and hold the telcos to the fire to explain their service levels and pricing strategies.

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      4. @Liam.lah: you might want to check the source of your “actual figure” because exclusive franchises are illegal in the U.S.

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    2. Well then, tell us what those wholesale costs are – show us the books. Undoctored. Customers can be reasonable if verified facts are shared.

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      1. “Customers can be reasonable if verified facts are shared”. There is no part of data caps that are “verified facts” that they work. If they can’t support the bandwidth they say they are going to provide, then don’t sell that much bandwidth. Simple as that.

        http://corp.sonic.net/ceo/2011/12/02/web-hogs/

        That article right there, from an American ISP offering uncapped gigabit, shows that caps are bs. It costs nothing more for an ISP to move 10 GB or 10 TB. If the infrastructure is in place to support 1 Tbps, then there is no difference in cost to moving 1 GB/day or 100 TB/day. No difference whatsoever. Work in the networking industry and tell me how moving X amount of data affects operations.

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    3. Last mile delivery may be as low as $1/month, even in some USA markets:
      http://stopthecap.com/2012/08/07/broadband-costs-continue-accelerated-decline-providers-real-cost-for-your-usage-1month/

      But unless your ISP owns it’s own continental backbone, it is forced to buy it’s backhaul connection from the big boys. The telcos that have their own backbones (think TWC, AT&T) appear to have set this price arbitrarily high in order to justify charging so much to their smaller competitors. The telcos technically charge each other the same exorbitant rates, BUT they peer off each other, issuing charges and credits back and forth which work out to zero. Their only cost to operate is to keep the equipment working, which is plummeting.

      Paul makes a good point that telcos have no interest in investing in their in their infrastructure while their ARPUs decline. We need to give them incentive. Unfortunately, the telcos have wriggled out from obligation for the billions of public dollars that were given to them to build the infrastructure. They still pretend that the cost of business is just as high, and rising, while keeping their numbers secret. We need to open up those publicly-funded networks to competitors again, but the talking heads seem to agree that it will never happen. We need a major change in the game, because even the arrival of a new competitor, who can fund their own network rollout, will only lower customer’s costs temporarily. Then the duopoly simply becomes a triopoly.

      One thing that is firm in my mind is that there should never ever be billing by the byte. A fully-deployed, but idle network, costs virtually the same to keep running as one which is maxed out with traffic. The difference is how much profit the telco is milking out of it. If the telcos can get away with this embargo, this fictional shortage of bandwidth, then they can raise the price of bandwidth sky high, while NOT plowing their profits into expanding their overloaded network as they should.

      ISPs should charge a flat monthly fee for a connection of a given SUSTAINED CAPACITY. If they want to make more money, they should be compelled to expand their network like gangbusters in order to offer more capacity to customers who require it. This will be good for all customers, and it won’t hurt telcos, since they’d still be making a magnificent profit by merely charging double their cost of operation!

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  4. Glenn Fleishman Monday, October 1, 2012

    Note that almost the only place where national or large regional companies all have no caps is in the Northeast, where TWC, Cablevision, and Verizon contend for customers. As many have alleged, competition between like services (FiOS and cable) can produce actual customer benefits (no caps).

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  5. i have cox in central florida. there is no cap

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  6. I have Cox and have MANY times gone over my limit and not even gotten warned. It also depends on the market and what kinda traffic comes across your connection. Though they do not mind the bittorrenting, they will say something if thats 90%+ of your traffic.

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  7. Robert J. Berger Tuesday, October 2, 2012

    We should have a simple rule: No entity can own / control / operate the transport AND have any interest in the content that is transported. Time to bring back Common Carrier laws. Horizontal Divestiture of CableCos and Telcos.

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    1. What he said!

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  8. And heres more proof it is for profit. I live 6 miles from the nearest town in rural SW MO and have bundled 3/1 DSL, TV Comparable in all aspects to dish network aside from less HD channels, unlimited phone service with no caps of any sort and my speeds never fall below 2.77 Mb/s down and 1.1 Mb/s up. There is two other phone companies in this county offering the same thing which winds up in near 100% county wide broadband coverage for the county and 0 complaints on any of them for service degredation and they are all unlimited. The only people not seved that I am aware of are people that live where old homestead laws restricted the laying of the lines. Now this service might no be super fast and it is a tad on the expensive side ($120 a month for all three and no premium channels on my personal subscription) but with service that never faulters and unlimited service, you can acomplish just about anything you need to get done.

    The town I live near is also served by centurylink cable and that cable company cannot even justify the cost of upgrading their lines enough to offer their highest speed package because noone wants their capped service even if it does mean faster speeds.

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  9. Stacey Higginbotham, intentionally ignoring the basic facts of mathematics, lobbies in her blog for the agenda of GigaOm advertiser Google. The truth: data volume is just the integral of speed over time. Cap data? Cap speed? It’s the same thing, but data caps are actually better for users because they can burst to higher speeds. But Google wants ISPs to cap neither, becoming profitless conduits for the advertising and spying that makes it billions.

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    1. “Cap data? Cap speed? It’s the same thing…”

      They certainly are not the same thing. If the goal is to regulate network congestion it does not matter at all how much a customer downloaded earlier in his billing cycle. What matters is how much demand there is for bandwidth at the time the request is made.

      “Google wants ISPs to cap neither, becoming profitless conduits…”

      Here’s an idea. They could make a profit by charging for internet access and providing good service. Many small internet providers (which do not have a vested interest in degrading internet service so you will use their TV/voice/PPV movie service) do just that.

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      1. The goal is not just to regulate congestion; it’s to recover the cost of building and managing the network in a fair and reasonable way. Bandwidth caps and data caps are both reasonable ways of doing this. When congestion is not present, data caps are the MOST reasonable way.

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      2. Brett Glass wrote: “Success means recovering one’s investment. It does not mean being a charity. Of course, GoogleOm — which looks out for the interests of Google rather than either ISPs or consumers — wants ISPs to be charities.”

        Stop shilling, Brett Glass. The cable companies’ coax infrastructures already existed and did not represent massive investments in the way fiber networks like FIOS and U-Verse did. Furthermore, it has been shown that Verizon and AT&T didn’t really spend very much building them in the first place, because they funded their construction primarily by robbing from funds intended to maintain the PSTN. http://tinyurl.com/FIOSbuildcost

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    2. Uh.. what? Talk about a false choice. You would be right if the network load was always at capacity, and that is demonstrably not the case.

      In your theory anything which reduced traffic would be good, and a network that was barely used and incapable of acting as infrastructure to build on would be evidence of a successful telecommunications sector in a country. The opposite is true.

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      1. Success means recovering one’s investment. It does not mean being a charity. Of course, GoogleOm — which looks out for the interests of Google rather than either ISPs or consumers — wants ISPs to be charities.

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    3. Yes, imposing data caps rather than cutting data-transfer speeds are rather like drinking arsenic rather than bug poison: they’re easier to conceal.

      The result — dampening user demand and thus retarding the market for innovations — is the same. And Google has nothing to do with it. Pure red herring.

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  10. I do not see RCN listed. RCN does not have any data caps

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