While we take broadband for granted in this day and age, the ability to share information comes with an up-front cost and a hidden cost. Most traditional providers offer you fixed speeds for download and upload, and may charge you extra for higher tiers of service and a cable modem rental. The latter cost is one that can be mitigated by procuring your own modem using a list of equipment that has been approved or certified by the ISP. The former is a cost that can be discounted if you opt to obtain additional services such as television or a digital phone line. Our point of contention in this model pertains to the tertiary charge associated with data caps and cramming for services that may not be provided at all.
In the early days of cable broadband, where three megabits per second or more was revolutionary, the pipe was an unlimited well from which all subscribers could drink. As speeds became faster, the cable providers felt inclined to boost profits by instantiating per-user data caps. For peer to peer file sharing applications, the ability to abuse the terms of service via legitimate and questionable data transfers provided the inspiration for these companies to develop standard-issue boilerplate pertaining to the quality of the network and costs that are passed on to everyone else. If you don’t watch your bill like a hawk, you may find erroneous charges for converter boxes that you don’t own, premium services that cannot be provided, outrageous charges for utilization that did not happen, or any other deceitful method that allows the extraction of hard earned money with no tangible or realistic product.
The threats to these legacy stalwarts come in many forms, and the answers to maintain levels of revenue are not consumer friendly in the least. The implementation of data caps for residential services stifles the ability for competition to truly innovate and provides ample proof that the current delivery model is broken. The amount of variance between data consumption rates and online activities for households of different sizes will correlate to the number of connected devices that exist. In a single-person household, it would be realistic to assume a minimum of a traditional compute device, a smart device, and potentially a smart television, game console, or media player with associated apps that provide the means to consume over the top (OTT) services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or Hulu. In the current model of 1080p streams, a cap of one terabyte per month may be more than sufficient for most use cases when accounting for binge watching new seasons of popular shows, sharing content with friends and family, communicating via service or application of choice, and getting every cellular device on WiFi to stay under those data caps.
What if that cap was less than a terabyte? What if you’ve adopted cloud-enabled services for data protection and storage? What happens when you have three independent streams from OTT services running simultaneously without restricting data consumption or video quality? What happens is the racket being instituted by Armstrong Communications. Pay exorbitant amounts of money for a high speed cable modem service that nets you a fairly generous bandwidth allocation and a three hundred gigabyte data cap. No, that’s not a typo! In a situation where the video game console of choice offers you three free games with your annual subscription, downloading said titles in a reasonable amount of time effectively destroys your data balance. You’ll reach your cap well before the billing cycle ends.
If you want more room under the cap, you have to take the full bundle. More than doubling your bill will provide you with some of the worst channel bundle configurations under the sun, with many lacking a high-definition feed. You’ll also get your standard issue voice over IP service running through the modem, and your cap goes up by two hundred gigabytes per month. Is five hundred gigabytes enough for larger households when your download rate eclipses two hundred megabits per second? Survey says…. No! It’s only going to get worse as consumers eventually transition to ultra high definition television sets. Your variable five megabit (or more) per second stream will quintuple. An hour long show being streamed at a rate of approximately twenty five megabits per second ensures you’ll consume over eleven gigabytes of your cap in one shot. After forty-five hours of shows, it’s time to pay the piper again with additional charges in increments of fifty gigabyte allotments. Keep going over consistently? Use the option to buy additional capacity up front. Somehow manage to stay under the cap after paying extra? Good for you, and thanks for the free money!
If taking your money wasn’t enough, said entity will also leverage the infamous practice of cramming an extra sixty dollars every year with their “Zoomshare” offering. Previously, the description of this service pertains to photo sharing, akin to the myriad of photo sharing sites that were… what’s the word we’re looking for…. free. This charge was revised to state that the service consists of an ISP-provided WiFi router for sharing the Internet connection. Comcast, Verizon, and other providers do offer the true “all in one” modem/WiFi router/VoIP combination unit with battery backup. In those cases, you’re renting the device from the ISP. This secondary cramming scam does not actually provide any equipment. The charge just shows up. Calling customer service and explaining that the ISP provided no such device results in a plea of ignorance and refusal to do anything. How does one return an imaginary object that they neither own nor possess?
In areas where a given provider has a monopoly, the alternative options won’t be feasible. The latency of satellite Internet access presents its own challenges for applications that have real-time implications. Getting a competitor to run service to your residence may incur a charge that would let you put a very substantial down payment on a new house. The paltry data caps for tethering one’s phone and attempting to use it as the central source of Internet connectivity won’t work either due to restrictions on performing large updates for mobile devices when one is not connected to WiFi.
These archaic tactics only protect the interest of the incumbent cable company. The variety and maturity of OTT services can meet the needs of the majority of individuals. The local broadcasters, in an effort to maintain the ability to generate advertising revenue, will broadcast one or more streams to your house for the cost of an antenna. If you have a cell phone, do you really need a land line? If you prefer to have a land line available for emergencies, do you really need to pay thirty dollars a month (or more) when you can get equivalent service using the same VoIP technologies for pennies on the dollar?
Excuses related to the ISPs spending money upgrading their network hold little truth. There are still plenty of DOCSIS 1.x modems out in the wild, potentially providing less speed than an individual is paying for. Does the ISP actively inventory and manage the life cycle of their on-premise equipment to improve the health and capabilities of connectivity for customers? No! Does the ISP gradually increase bandwidth allocations to loyal customers at no additional cost? No! Does the ISP provide any type of assistance to families that are optimizing their budget and requiring the removal or downgrade of some services in effort to put food on the table? Hell no! They’ll sell you the same bandwidth and fewer channels for the same money.
Disruptive solutions such as Google Fiber hold promise. People clamor for the speeds and capabilities of such connections. The fine folks at Alphabet are willing to make the necessary investments to bring fiber to the premises. Municipalities are welcoming the investment and modernization of infrastructure. Guess who’s stopping them in markets where they plan to deploy? The incumbents. The same incumbents that gouge and limit choice. The implications of destroying the monopoly or oligopoly are tremendously pro-consumer. Competition in this space is long past overdue.