Comcast drops controversial data caps

Critics have long complained that data caps imposed by Comcast and other Internet service providers are an end run around network-neutrality rules. As I wrote here last week, Netflix has complained that Comcast's caps put it at a disadvantage in competing against Comcast's new video-streaming service, Streampix, and Sony blamed data caps when it dropped plans for a new service offering "virtual cable" to Internet subscribers.

As explained in a March column, Comcast didn't impose overage charges for those few customers who exceeded the 250-gigabyte cap. Instead, it suspended service for a year to repeat offenders such as the outspoken Seattle gaming consultant, Andre Vrignaud.

Today, after growing criticism over its practices favoring Streampix, Comcast did an about-face: In a blog post today, it says it will drop the caps in favor of "improved data usage management approaches" and - importantly - tiered charges for overages:

In the next few months, therefore, we are going to trial improved data usage management approaches comparable to plans that others in the market are using that will provide customers with more choice and flexibility than our current policy. We'll be piloting at least two approaches in different markets, and we'll provide additional details on these trials as they launch. But we can give everyone an overview today.

The first new approach will offer multi-tier usage allowances that incrementally increase usage allotments for each tier of high-speed data service from the current threshold. Thus, we'd start with a 300 GB usage allotment for our Internet Essentials, Economy, and Performance Tiers, and then we would have increasing data allotments for each successive tier of high speed data service (e.g., Blast and Extreme). The very few customers who use more data at each tier can buy additional gigabytes in increments/blocks (e.g., $10 for 50 GB).

The second new approach will increase our data usage thresholds for all tiers to 300 GB per month and also offer additional gigabytes in increments/blocks (e.g., $10 per 50 GB).

In both approaches, we'll be increasing the initial data usage threshold for our customers from today's 250 GB per month to at least 300 GB per month.

I'll have more to say later about Comcast's new approach, which still treats data too much as if it's something produced and consumed, like electricity. The new policy still ignores the fact that during periods of low demand, there is virtually no incremental cost to Comcast for customers' high-volume data use – say, to upload data to the cloud for backup, the activity that Vrignaud says was largely responsible for his shutoff.

But the company deserves credit for shifting gears, and for adopting a more-transparent and less-punitive approach.