Our Stamp Act: AT&T Broadband Caps and Online Democracy

by Matthew L. Schafer

This week, two public interest groups wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to urge an investigation of AT&T’s broadband data caps that were first announced by the company in March.   Similar caps now cover 56% of broadband users in the United States.

The data caps, which limit DSL customers to 150 GB and U-verse customers to 250 GB, went into effect for the first time this month.  Users who exceed the caps may be subject to $10 charges for every 50GB over the limit they use.

“In the world of broadband data caps, the caps recently implemented by AT&T are particularly aggressive,” the letter from Public Knowledge and the New America Foundation said.  “Unlike competitors whose caps appear to be at least nominally linked to congestions during peak-use periods, AT&T seeks to convert caps into a profit center by charging additional fees to customers who exceed the cap.”

When Broadband Reports first broke the news in March, AT&T received immediate pushback from those in the industry and politicians alike.  The tech website Ars Technica led off its story with a picture of an owl captioned, “Skeptical Owl is… Skeptical.”  Despite the comedy, the situation surrounding the broad caps is no laughing matter.

“I am concerned that charging more for increased usage would raise prices for some consumers and potentially lead to lower broadband adoption levels,” Rep. Edward Markey said at the time. “This would undermine our broadband goals as outlined in the National Broadband Plan while undercutting our global competitiveness.”

While the tide of unrest eventually fell between the time the news broke in March and this month’s roll out of the caps, it is apparent that the arrival of those limits has reignited the debate over not just the wisdom of instigating the caps, but even the morality of the caps.  Indeed, Wired gave a nod to the sadness of the situation, telling readers to “shed a tear” as the caps went into effect.

In an effort to fight back, Harold Feld and Sascha Meinrath of Public Knowledge and New America Foundation respectively, asked the FCC to specifically investigate:

  • Which ISP-offered services are excluded from the cap.
  • How often the cap is enforced.
  • Steps taken to warn customers.
  • Average penalty incurred by customers.
  • When and how often a penalty is waived.
  • The relationship of enforcement to times of network congestion.
  • How data caps are set.
  • How data caps are evaluated on an ongoing basis.

While AT&T originally—and still does—justify the implementation of the data caps as an effort to fight “bandwidth hogs,” some market analysts are suggesting the justification is simply a guise.

“This isn’t about protecting against the data network being swamped with excess usage,”  Sanford Bernstein Senior Analyst Craig Moffett said. “This is about putting the business model on a stable, long-term economic model.”

Whatever the justification for the imposition of the data caps, there is a public debate that must be had.  With an ever increasing number of people turning to the internet for news and information—information made to power democracy—what effect will a broadband cap have on communities across the country.

As one web designer recently said, “This is regression.  We spent the last ten years developing these technologies, and now we’re going backwards.”

Moreover, these broadband caps are not broadband caps in the truest sense of the words.  Instead, they are information caps.  They are the Stamp Act of the 21st century.  While AT&T and others are only charging relatively nominal fees currently, there is reason to believe it will only get worse.  Indeed, in Canada overage fees of $5 per GB are now commonplace.

We’re at a tipping point between an exclusively commercial internet, and the historically free and open internet dedicated to the spread of ideas and the meeting of minds.  If we let it slip now, we may not be able to get it back.


Flickr/arnet117

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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One Response to Our Stamp Act: AT&T Broadband Caps and Online Democracy

  1. Fred Goodwin says:

    Matthew: you know the great thing about that letter?

    The whiners don’t point to a SINGLE FCC rule or federal statute that AT&T is violating. You know why? Because caps don’t violate ANY rules. Which also explains why this garbage was submitted as a mealey-mouthed request to investigate instead of as an actual complaint. Of course, they have no standing to complain and of course, the Net Neutrality rules aren’t even in effect yet, so it’s much better to file some vague nonsense about potential harms.

    Yeah, THAT’s the ticket!

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