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When Is a Data Cap Not a Data Cap? When Big Telecom Says So

·Contributing Editor
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(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

Not long ago, Lady’s Island, S.C., resident Tim O’Sullivan received a surprising phone call from Comcast. A representative for the cable company told O’Sullivan he’d exceeded a 300-gigabyte threshold on his plan. 

O’Sullivan wouldn’t have to pay the first three times he maxed out that limit, the representative said, but after that, he would be charged $10 for each extra 50 GB he used past 300 GB.

That policy was news to him. It may be news to you as well: Since 2012, Comcast has repeatedly trumpeted that it does not have a data cap.

“We suspended our 250 GB data cap in order to conduct a few pilot programs that were more customer friendly than a static cap,” executive vice president Cathy Avgiris wrote on Comcast’s corporate blog back in May 2012. “Since then, we’ve had no data caps for any of our customers anywhere in the country.”

Two years later, Vice President David Cohen used almost the exact same words in a blog post. Instead of a cap, he explained, Comcast was testing “flexible data consumption plans, including a plan that enables customers who wanted to use more data be given the option to pay more to do so, and a plan for those who use less data the option to save some money.”

Wait, what were those last two bits?

When a cap isn’t a cap
Comcast’s line is that there’s no cap in the sense of the customer not being able to do anything else online after hitting that limit — the way it used to work. For instance, when my friend Glenn Fleishman blew past the old 250 GB cap while reviewing online backup services for Macworld, Comcast threatened to cancel his service.

Wrote Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas in an email: “The new approach is far more flexible.” And subscribers endorsed the change. When asked in late 2012, Douglas added: “80 percent of our customers we surveyed said this new approach is fairer than our previous approach.”

I can see that. But when exceeding a usage metric — something Douglas said 3 to 5 percent of subscribers in these trial markets do — gets you a warning and then inflates your bill, what do you call it if not a cap?

You can certainly call it a surprise: O’Sullivan said he learned about this threshold/limit/policy/feature only when Comcast called, not when he signed up.

Comcast’s own site offers no hint of its existence in his neighborhood. The page describing its “Data Usage Plan Trials” says they’re confined to Charleston, more than 70 miles away. Its page for O’Sullivan’s local market features more than 500 words of fine print. But none mention this data-usage policy.

O’Sullivan, who said video and then remote IT work eats up most of his family of five’s bandwidth, said he figures they’ll exceed that limit every month. And since his only other option for Internet access is slow DSL, he’s just going to have to pay for it.

Wireless can be like that, too
There isn’t anything inherently evil about charging customers more if they use more of a service or giving them a discount for using less of it. We’ve been living with this in our utility bills for decades, and it’s possible to construct fair deals for Internet access based on the same logic.

Charging less for slower service is the simplest way to do that — and if you can’t stream Netflix, you’re in little danger of going on a bandwidth binge. Then there’s another Comcast trial, a “Flexible-Data Option” for light Internet users; if only it gave customers a better reward for rationing themselves to 5 GB or less a month than its paltry $5 credit.

But “unlimited” is such an easy concept to sell that even wireless carriers — who have long sold defined, capped buckets of data — have gotten in trouble for applying that word to services that had limits, or for trying to sneak limits into previously unlimited plans:

T-Mobile showed a more shopper-friendly side of itself Tuesday when it added “Data Stash”: banking the leftover balance in one months’ data bucket for future use instead of confiscating it. The carrier still sells unlimited plans at a higher cost, but with this move — and the added sweetener of 10 GB of free data in each subscriber’s stash — paying less for a capped service may seem a significantly better bargain.

Companies that have grown weary of offering unlimited-data services to their customers could learn something from T-Mobile’s example. But where that carrier has chosen a surprise-and-delight strategy, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and the rest of Big Telecom seem content to stop at “surprise.”

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.