Small US cable op scraps its data cap

Antietam Broadband has eliminated its data usage plans and data caps permanently after relaxing those policies temporarily during the pandemic. Antietam's move could pressure other cable ops to follow suit.

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

June 2, 2020

4 Min Read
Small US cable op scraps its data cap

Antietam Broadband has dropped its data cap, and it's apparently never going back.

As one of dozens of US ISPs to participate in the FCC's Keep Americans Connected pledge, Antietam Broadband relaxed its broadband usage policies temporarily. The small cable operator, which serves Washington County, Maryland, is now taking that a step further by eliminating data caps completely for all customers, a move that is retro-active to mid-March.

Antietam Broadband, an operator that's part of Schurz Communications, said it made the decision permanent after customers started to shift to tiers that reflected their rise in residential broadband usage during the pandemic. The company also felt that customers needed as much certainty over their bills as possible.

"Removing data usage caps, in part, is a result of learnings from the COVID-19 Pandemic as more people worked and learned remotely," Antietam Broadband president Bryan Lynch said in a statement. "During this period customers moved into broadband packages that more accurately reflected their broadband needs."

Antietam said it was able to stay ahead of demand on its network over the past two months by adding backhaul, server capacity and local nodes.

The cable op didn't release any specific data on network usage during that period, but the NCTA's COVID-19 Dashboard, which captures data from several major and midsized US cable operators, shows that peak usage surged in early March through early April and has since flattened out. Since March 1, aggregate upstream peak usage among the MSOs being tracked by the dashboard has grown 30%, and peak downstream usage has risen 16.1% during that period.

Figure 1: Source: Data from NCTA member companies and others. Source: Data from NCTA member companies and others.

Though some of Antietam's broadband customers have upgraded to faster tiers in recent weeks, the elimination of data caps could leave some money on the table. Antietam's 1-Gig, FTTP-based service has always been uncapped, but its DOCSIS-based tiers were previously governed by a policy that charged $10 for a bucket of 50 gigabytes of data if customers exceeded their monthly plan. Antietam would wave the fee is the customer moved to a higher speed tier that more closely reflected actual usage. Antietam estimates that an average of 4% of data customers exceeded their monthly cap limit.

Usage-based home broadband policies have been a source of controversy ever since they came on the scene. While operators have argued that such policies are used in the name of "fairness" – customers who use more data of the network should pay more – critics of those policies claim they are unnecessary since they don't impact network congestion and can be used as a tool to gouge a subset of customers that are heavy users due to streaming video and other capacity-intensive applications and services.

Meanwhile, several ISPs, including Charter Communications, Altice USA, WideOpenWest and even fixed wireless companies such as Starry and Common Networks operate without caps and data usage policies and their networks appear to be holding up just fine without them.

As Antietam moves to scrap its caps completely, it could put pressure on other cable operators and telcos do the same and eliminate those policies rather than restoring them once the impact of the pandemic starts to subside.

Several cable ops have relaxed their caps temporarily on the urging of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. After originally waiving data caps and overage fees through mid-May, several broadband service providers, including Comcast and Cox Communications, have since extended that decision through the end of June.

Most US cable operators don't reveal much about the financial impacts of their usage-based policies or unlimited data plans other than to note that very few customers exceed their monthly data plans. Cable One, which has all but ignored pay-TV to instead focus on its higher-margin broadband service, has noted that roughly 20% of new broadband customers opt for an unlimited plan that typically costs an extra $45 per month.

But will Cable One and possibly others follow in Antietam's footsteps? That's still not clear. Speaking on Cable One's Q1 2020 call last month, CEO Julie Laulis said the company is evaluating its existing data plans and expects to make adjustments when its standard service is restored, but stressed that the vast majority of the company's residential broadband customers do not exceed the company's data plans.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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