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The FCC is looking to regulate broadband data caps

The FCC is looking to regulate broadband data caps


The commission is asking for public comment ahead of an investigation into the effect of data caps on people.

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A picture of the four current commissioners of the FCC.
The Federal Communications Commission currently has four members.
Image: Federal Communications Commission

Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has announced a proposal to investigate broadband internet data caps and their effect on consumers. To help with the investigation, the FCC has opened up a portal asking for public comment on how they’ve been affected by data caps — that is, limits on how much internet data a customer can use before being charged more money or having their service slowed down.

The FCC especially wants to hear about the effects of data caps on “those with disabilities, low-income consumers, and historically disadvantaged communities” as well as their impact on education, the ability to access public safety services, and more.

A lot of ISPs suspended data caps during the covid pandemic, with companies like Comcast noting the need for Americans to stay connected to the internet for work, education, and personal reasons. As the pandemic wore on, companies began limiting plans once more, but pushback by the public and government has slowed a full return to pre-pandemic data limits.

Rosenworcel is asking the board to back her proposal, calling internet access a “need-to-have for everyone, everywhere.” But before the FCC can start regulating data caps, it will need to figure out if it even has the authority to do so.

That could be difficult because the FCC is currently headed by a four-person board that has been politically deadlocked since President Joe Biden took office and Chair Ajit Pai stepped down. Biden’s nominee to replace Pai, Gigi Sohn, was never confirmed, leading her to withdraw her nomination earlier this year. Biden submitted telecommunications attorney Anna Gomez in her place — her first hearing is expected to take place in two days on June 22nd.

In the meantime, the FCC’s deadlock could hamper any dealings with data caps — its partisan split has already prevented it from fining wireless companies for illegally selling their customers’ location data, for instance. Right now, the biggest companies that impose limits do so on a monthly basis and typically start charging extra after about a terabyte of monthly use.

In the case of AT&T, pricing can start at $55 per month for a 25Mbps plan before going up to $65 per month or more after a year, and the company will charge $10 for every extra 50GB you use (unless you upgrade to unlimited for $30 per month or have a plan that’s already unlimited). Cox internet is similar, with plans starting at $50 per month for a 100Mbps download throughput and a teeny-tiny 5Mbps upload speed, or 250Mbps down plan with 10Mbps uploads, and a 1.25TB monthly limit, again charging $10 per 50GB if you go over.

If that makes your head swim, I don’t blame you. And none of it takes into account the additional fees ISPs often tack onto the end of your bill. Going over a terabyte-plus data limit isn’t all that hard, either, especially if you stream a lot or use high-end game consoles, where new games increasingly clock in at over 100GB. Once you’ve done that, you can quickly rack up another $100 in a matter of days, especially if you have a couple of kids and a Disney Plus subscription.

Correction June 21st, 2023, 12:37PM ET: The original version of this article mistakenly listed internet plans as measured in Gbps, but they should have been Mbps. Also, Cox does not have a 200Mbps plan — it is a 250Mbps plan, with a 10Mbps upload speed (previously, the article implied this tier also has a 5Mbps upload speed). We sincerely regret the errors.