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Investigate AT&T Broadband Caps

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First they encourage us to get and use broadband, now they cap it. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t

Two public interest groups asked federal regulators Friday to take a close look at AT&T’s new limits on their broadband customer’s internet usage, saying the caps could undermine the national broadband plan.

AT&T’s caps, which went into effect Monday, limit DSL customers to 150 GB of usage a month, while customers of the more robust U-Verse service (a mixture of fiber and phone lines) are capped at 250 GB a month. Users who go past those caps face overage fees of $10 for every 50 GB.

Online video, backup and gaming services are increasingly popular and particularly bandwidth-intensive. An hour of Netflix can range from 0.3 GB to 2 GB, depending on the quality.

The letter from Public Knowledge and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative calls the caps “particularly aggressive” and notes that with AT&T’s adoption of the cap, more than half of the broadband subscribers in the United States are now using a capped service.

“While broadband caps are not inherently problematic, they carry the omnipresent temptation to act in anticompetitive and monopolistic ways,” the group told the FCC. “Unless they are clearly and transparently justified to address legitimate network-capacity concerns, caps can work directly against the promise of broadband access.”

Comcast imposed a 250-GB cap on its cable broadband customers in 2008, after it was censured by the FCC for secretly throttling peer-to-peer services. The company does not charge overage fees. Instead it warns customers and eventually cuts them off.

ISPs that install the caps say they are necessary to keep some users from overwhelming their network at the expense of other users. The problem for ISPs isn’t usually the connection to the internet’s backbone, where rates continue to fall.

Instead, ISPs are facing pressure to increase the capacity of their local connections, and are using caps as a rough attempt to keep usage down. (See these analyses for how a system that tries to reduce usage at times of congestion would be a better solution.)

The groups want the FCC to investigate whether ISPs are counting the data that customers use for the ISPs’ own services, such as Video-on-Demand and internet calling, against the cap. The rationale is that if they are not, the ISPs have an unfair advantage over so-called over-the-top services such as Skype and Netflix.

The groups also suggest the FCC should require quarterly reports from AT&T, and possibly other ISPs, detailing how the caps are working and which ISP-offered services are excluded from the cap. This should include reporting on services, such as voice telephony and video programming, that compete with internet-delivered non–ISP-controlled offerings.

Specifically the groups suggest the FCC find out how often the cap is enforced, what steps are taken to warn customers, what the average penalty incurred by customers is, when and how often a penalty is waived, and what the relationship of enforcement is to times of network congestion.

AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

via Investigate AT&T Broadband Caps, Interest Groups Tell FCC.

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