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Cable Tech

Comcast delays charging data overage fees in the Northeast

Facing mounting pressure from lawmakers, Comcast has delayed charging broadband overage data fees in its Northeast division until July, per a set of commitments brokered by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Under the agreement, Comcast will also waive any early termination fees for customers who opt out through December 2021. Comcast will also forgo data usage policies on low-income users enrolled in the operator's Internet Essentials program, which just this week raised speeds to 50 Mbit/s downstream and 5 Mbit/s upstream, for the rest of 2021.

"As Pennsylvanians continue to navigate this pandemic, we know millions are relying on the internet for school and work more than ever. This is not the time to change the rules when it comes to Internet data usage and increase costs," Shapiro said.

Policy changes

Comcast activated its usage-based residential broadband data policy in its northeast region, which includes parts of 13 states and Washington, DC, and select areas where the cable operator competes with Verizon Fios, on January 1, 2021. The postponement means any overage charges won't be seen by customers in the region until their August 2021 bill arrives.

The extension of the policy in that region would effectively make Comcast's policies uniform across the country. Comcast already has those policies in place in its central and west divisions.

Following a multi-month suspension of its usage-based policy during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, Comcast restored and updated its data policies in July 2020, raising the monthly limit to 1.2 TB – 200 gigabytes more than the 1TB limit in place prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Under the revised data plan, residential broadband customers who exceed 1.2TB of data per month are charged $10 for each additional bucket of 50 gigabytes, up to a maximum of $100 per month (Comcast's maximum data overage charge prior to the pandemic was $200). Comcast also sells a standalone unlimited data option costs an additional $30 per month.

Comcast noted that the overwhelming majority of its customers are unaffected by its data policies, but agreed that it makes sense to postpone overage charges in the northeast.

"We appreciate the productive, open dialogue with Attorney General Shapiro's office regarding the 1.2 TB data plan, and we understand that customers in Pennsylvania may need additional time to become familiar with the data plan," Comcast said in a statement. "We are committed to evaluating and adapting our approach to best serve the needs of our customers, particularly in these challenging times."

Pressure points

Prior to today's agreement with the Pennsylvania AG, Comcast had been under pressure to rethink the timing of its policy in the northeast region.

A group of Massachusetts legislators recently urged Comcast to pull back the policy in the region, arguing in part that they consider such a move a "perversion" of network neutrality principles. Lawmakers in that state followed that with a proposed bill that would temporarily halt ISPs from shutting off broadband service if customers could not pay due to financial hardships, prevent them from raising costs and creating new fees associated with broadband, and prevent them from implementing any new data caps or allowances.

Comcast and several other ISPs around the US also caught some heat from the US House Energy & Commerce Committee for the use of data caps and/or for raising prices during the pandemic.

All of this activity seems to have made ISPs increasingly wary of drawing broadband-focused criticism amid a new Biden administration that is expected to direct the FCC to pursue network neutrality rules that were rolled back under Trump.

Last month, for example, Charter Communications dropped a petition asking the FCC to put an early end to conditions tied to its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks that prevent the operator from installing data caps and striking paid peering deals. Without an early sunset, those conditions are set to expire in May 2023.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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