Senate Urged To Probe Data Caps

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Broadband caps imposed by Internet service providers threaten the future of online video, a coalition of consumer advocacy groups told lawmakers.

"Data caps dampen the use of broadband generally and discourage high-bandwidth applications, like online video, specifically," Free Press, Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and the New America Foundation say in a letter to leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee. The organizations are urging the lawmakers to examine the issue at a Tuesday hearing about online video distribution.

Several years ago, some wireline providers began imposing caps on data usage, although with high enough limits that most consumers did not come close to exceeding them. For instance, in 2008 Comcast began limiting residential customers to 250 GB per month -- roughly equivalent to 125 standard-definition movies.

ISPs frequently say the caps will help to manage network congestion. But critics say that ISPs have other options for controlling traffic.

"Where congestion does exist, it's dynamic and temporary," says Free Press policy adviser Joel Kelsey. "Capping someone's aggregate monthly use doesn't make sense." Instead, advocates say that ISPs should manage congestion as it occurs.

Broadband advocates also say caps will discourage people from getting in the habit of watching programs online -- where they don't need to pay pricey cable TV fees. "In a world in which the meter is always running, consumers are much more conscious of how much they're consuming and are dissuaded generally from using high-bandwidth apps online," he says.

In their letter to lawmakers, public interest groups add that providers "have a strong incentive and ability to protect their legacy, linear video distribution models from emerging online video competition."

The advocates' letter addresses caps by wireline providers, but wireless carriers also recently ended unlimited data for mobile users. AT&T and Verizon offer tiered pricing, where subscribers pay based on monthly data usage. T-Mobile recently instituted monthly data caps and throttles users who exceed them.

Kelsey says that Free Press isn't a fan of wireless data caps, but is not asking the Senate to address wireless practices as part of Tuesday's hearing.

The group Public Knowledge criticized pay-per-byte pricing models in a separate research paper released on Monday. "At a minimum, carriers should restrict UBP [usage-based pricing] to specific times of day that are most likely to be congested," Public Knowledge says. "Data sent or received during off-peak hours have no meaningful impact on network congestion and should be excluded from the scheme."

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