Comcast: Data Police

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last month I used 256 gigabytes of Comcast Internet bandwidth. I only know that figure because I live in Georgia, one of the nine states where the cable giant is experimenting with home broadband data caps (the others are Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina).

Three hundred gigs. That’s the cap. Is it too little, too much, or just the right amount?

I still don’t know, but with several computers, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and streaming services all running in my house, every month is a nail-biter. When we go over, Comcast automatically bills $10 for every additional 50-gigabyte block.

Broadband usage limits made me realize just how much the tech economy relies on free—or at least, unlimited—bandwidth. Every Mac or iOS or iMovie or XCode update downloads a couple gigabytes in the background, to each device. An hour of Netflix streaming eats about a gigabyte, depending on your quality settings (I dialed mine down to “ugh, really?”). One month, the Xbox One invisibly guzzled up 150 gigabytes worth of game patches. All those big files going up to Dropbox from one computer only to come right back down again to the other one across the room. And then there’s Facebook and Twitter and Google Docs and every other service quietly transmitting tiny bits of data to and from the Cloud all day long.

Data caps seem like metered services, but they’re not. Imagine if your electric or gas utility forced you to pay for your peak usage every month, whether you used it or not. That’s how data caps work. Everybody pays for more than they use, unless they also pay a surplus. That’s why they’re so insulting.

Relief may be coming, but it’s bittersweet. This week, Comcast announced a revision to capped service in Florida. For $30 more per month, the cap is lifted! They call it the Unlimited Data Option (um...). Of course, $30 extra is enough to buy 450 gigabytes, so why bother? It’s an easy question to answer if you actually live in one of the data capped markets: $30 is a small price to pay to get Comcast to stop afflicting you with naggy emails and unwanted robocalls and disturbing in-browser injection notices when you’re near the limit.