FCC questions ISPs' selective memory about data caps

Why were they so easy to lift during the pandemic but not now?

America's network regulator wants to "better understand" why ISPs still cap consumers' data usage even though they need more and providers have shown they have the "technical ability to offer unlimited data plans."

As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pointed out, many American broadband ISPs – along with their international counterparts – either temporarily or permanently refrained from enforcing or imposing data limits on their customers' transfer capacity as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden imposition of stay-at-home mandates, as many readers have experienced, placed an unprecedented strain on consumer networks, previously used only for watching Netflix or gaming while enterprise-grade connections took a little COVID rest.

As the pandemic spread in March 2020, more than 800 US ISPs and telcos signed a "pledge" that they wouldn't cut off consumer or small biz customers who paid their bill late, or charge overdue fees to those hit by economic hardship, as we reported at the time.

At the same time, many of the global ISPs removed data allowances on consumer broadband including BT, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk and O2 in the UK. In the US, AT&T suspended all data caps for customers and Comcast bumped up bandwidth for its low income "Essentials" package. Providers around the globe did similar. After all, the world and their dog were educating their children at home and using home connections to keep working – with only some employers offering to offset their home working costs and connections. ISPs wanted to show they supported telehealth and remote learning efforts during the pandemic, and weren't keen on the bad publicity that would be attracted by those cutting off access in an emergency.

The FCC wants to know why it was that easy then but not now in an investigation into how data caps are affecting the sector.

"Internet access is no longer nice-to-have, but need-to-have for everyone, everywhere. As we emerge from the pandemic, there are many lessons to learn about what worked and what didn't work, especially around what it takes to keep us all connected," said FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel [PDF]. "When we need access to the internet, we aren't thinking about how much data it takes to complete a task, we just know it needs to get done. It's time the FCC take a fresh look at how data caps impact consumers and competition."

The commission said it was also looking into its own legal authority to take action on data caps.

If you're based in the US and have a specific situation that personally affected you that involved a consumer broadband cap, you can fill out a form here, but don't forget to share the gory details with your fellow Reg readers in the comments below. ®

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