Comcast has delayed the rollout of its data caps in the northeast U.S. until sometime in 2022, an announcement that many advocates for digital equity count as a win of a battle, and not the war.
Last year, Comcast announced that it would cap internet data usage at 1.2 Terabytes of data a month for residents in the northeast United States, and charge an extra $10 per 50GB for overages, up to $100. Earlier this year, the company delayed the originally-planned March 2021 rollout until July. Now, an announcement states it is giving customers “more time to become familiar with the new plan.”
Coming amid the pandemic, advocates from the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition and city councilmembers include Kristerfer Burnett of the 8th district, Ryan Dorsey of the 3rd district and Zeke Cohen, of the 1st district, felt the move to introduce data caps was akin to price gouging, and wrote a letter to Maryland’s Attorney General Brian Frosh asking for an investigation, letting Comcast and the public know about it.
“These changes are the product of hard work by customers, students, and grassroots organizations who have long argued that Comcast practices digital redlining, i.e. the systemic exclusion of people of color from technology,” said Adam Echelman, executive director of Libraries Without Borders and a member of the coalition.
Echelman was referencing how when it comes to the disparities between the haves and have nots in access to internet, computers and technology, Black people tend to be in the have nots. In Maryland, 40% of all disconnected households are African American.
In the wake of protests by organizations like SOMOS, the org led by students at Baltimore City College high school, Comcast has also doubled the speeds of its low-cost Internet Essentials package to 50 Mbps downloads and 5mbps uploads, at no charge to the consumer. During the pandemic, the company has also established “Lift Zones” to provide free Wi-Fi at 15 Baltimore community centers.
Comcast already enforces data caps in the rest of the country, and the company assures most customers don’t exceed the limit. Yet there’s also the future to consider: As Technical.ly Delaware lead reporter Holly Quinn noted, with the rise of 4k, studies predict the average household will exceed a TB of data usage in a month. Anyone that plays Call of Duty: WarZone can expect an 80 gig update on any given Sunday.
Users in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, West Virginia, and parts of North Carolina and Ohio can still expect this change to data caps with Comcast. It’s not yet a question of if, but a matter of when. Comcast hasn’t said when in 2022 the policy will go into effect in these states.
Looking to the future, Cohen and other advocates want the internet to be treated like a utility, and are calling for the municipality to provide internet. Data cap delays and the boost to speeds of Internet Essentials is a short term win, they said, not a long-term solution like investments in organizations like Rowdy Orb.it and Project Waves that use mesh networks to provide free internet.
“I don’t think we should continue to rely on ISPs like Comcast to be the only game in town. I don’t think that’s sustainable for the city,” said Cohen. “I think we need to be really creative and identify a path forward that doesn’t allow Comcast to continue to prey on our vulnerability.”
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.