There Is An Alternative To Data Caps

Big incumbent ISPs don’t want you to know there is a public option.

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I’m a Netflix fan. I’ve been watching Netflix for almost two decades now. I started with DVD rentals and sometime in the last 6 years, I got on the streaming-only plan. And in all that time, I’ve never had any concern about data caps, until now.

Just the other day, and quite by chance, I came across this article from the Los Angeles Times, “Netflix’s biggest bingers get hit with higher internet costs”. It’s a quick read, but I was struck by the following passage:

In the first quarter of this year, about 4% of internet subscribers consumed at least 1 terabyte of data — the limit imposed by companies such as Comcast, AT&T and Cox Communications Inc. That’s up from 2% a year ago, according to OpenVault, which tracks internet data usage among cable subscribers in the United States and Europe.

So some people are blowing through their data caps mostly due to 4K content, and that trend is accelerating. That’s content shot or displayed in 4K resolution on the newer 4K TVs. You might have one of those TVs, too.

The article goes on to say that the bandwidth caps and fees for extra data and even “unlimited” data plans are a matter of fairness to the CEOs who run the giant telcos and cable companies. They say that people who use more bandwidth should pay more. That article is kind of a sad story because it suggests that there is no alternative and that in the end, we must submit to the nickel and dime act of the big telecommunications companies. We must submit to the business model of internet access scarcity.

What I found most interesting about that story is that there is no mention of any public option. I just happen to live in a city that offers a public option for internet access. It’s called Utopia Fiber. Utopia is public infrastructure owned by 11 local governments including the city I live in, West Valley City. The internet service that I have is a public-private service. A private company, Xmission, the oldest ISP in Utah, sells and manages internet access service over the public Utopia fiber network.

My current data plan is a humble one. For $67 a month, $30 to Utopia and $37 to Xmission, I get 250Mbs up and down. For another $13 a month, I could get gigabit speeds, or “a Gig”. Speed is symmetrical, up and down, and that makes backup to the cloud practical. Xmission also offers 10 Gbs if I want to pay $250 a month, but I can’t afford that, and I don’t have a clue what I’d do with that if I could. Check out Xmission’s rate plan:

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I’ve been on this plan for about a year now and there have been no service issues. I’ve never seen a service interruption. Ever. And there have been no rate increases. No calling the ISP to negotiate a lower rate with “Customer Retention” when they know there is no real competition. And those Utopia fees? I can eliminate them by buying my connection outright for $2750. Then I just pay the Xmission fees. So I’m buying my connection on time and then when that’s done, I can bump up to a gig for another $13, or $50 a month. That includes taxes, fees and anything else. Billing is one line item simple.

Comcast and Centurylink are both in Utah, but they don’t really compete with each other and they can’t compete with Utopia. I have wondered why they don’t compete, but I’m sure their shareholders know. I love my service with Xmission and Utopia and I’m never going back.

After I read that LA Times article, I recalled long ago, that I had learned that my data cap for my service was 2 terabytes. Since that was about a year ago, I checked in with the Xmission support team just to see if anything had changed.

The Xmission technician I talked to said that they have a “soft cap” of 10 terabytes. Then I checked my usage for the last month. I used about 276 GB. With my family’s viewing habits, we’re never going to touch 10 TB. We’re not even close, even if we went 4K with Netflix. And that engineer, he said that the soft cap is hardly ever enforced. They only talk to people about it if there is a serious abuse of the service.

I moved from LA to Utah 11 years ago, and one of the first things I checked out before moving was internet access. And my research led me to Utopia. My research also led me to a website I visit from time to time, Community Broadband Networks. They are a clearinghouse of data, news, articles, and research on public and cooperative networks. That’s where I really learned about Utopia and how it works.

The director of Community Broadband Networks is Christopher Mitchell, and you can find him on Twitter here. So I reached out to him by email to see what his experience of data caps has been. He says:

In our experience, most locally-based providers do not have data caps. That is true of municipal networks, cooperative networks, and the independent fiber companies like US Internet in Minneapolis or Sonic in California or Ting in several states.

Modern networks — whether the latest cable modem or fiber optic networks — rarely have problems with congestion because they have so much capacity available. But if there was congestion, a data cap would be a poor way to manage it. Imagine being told that because the roads are jammed up at rush hour, you can only drive 500 miles per month total, regardless of when you drive. That would be madness and people wouldn’t take it. But because technology feels magical, many people falsely believe data caps are a reasonable management practice.

Thanks, Chris! Notice his emphasis on “locally-based providers”. That’s because Community Broadband Networks is a part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. They promote local economies, and local cooperation. Notice also, that he says that most locally owned and operated ISPs don’t have data caps because they’re using fiber and fiber has so much capacity. And I really liked the last point, a subtle hint that the big private ISPs rely upon a scarcity mentality to support their business models.

One other entity I learned about from Community Broadband Networks is the Electric Power Board, or EPB, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The EPB is a municipal power utility that many years ago, ran fiber to every address in their service territory to monitor the meters. After they ran the fiber and got the meter-reading down to a science, they noticed that they had a lot of unused fiber capacity and started to sell that capacity as internet access to their electric power customers.

The EPB is a shining star in community broadband. They brought fiber to Chattanooga, Tennessee and they too, offer a kickass data plan, with 300 Mbs, a gig and 10 gig symmetrical speeds for very reasonable rates. And the big incumbent ISPs fought hard (and won) to prevent EPB from extending their service to other areas, too. So I checked with them about data caps, too, and according to Ed Marsten, VP of Marketing for EPB, “Thank you for reaching out. EPB of Chattanooga doesn’t have any data caps.” Of course, I might have saved myself some time by reviewing their data plans on their website:

Who else would know about data caps? I know, Stop The Cap!, an organization dedicated to “Promoting Better Broadband, Fighting Data Caps and Usage-Based Billing”. I reached out to them to find out what the industry response has been to community broadband without the caps? Phillip Dampier, editor of Stop The Cap! was kind enough to reply:

There has been no significant response to cap-free municipal competition by major cable/telco ISPs because municipal providers’ reach is too small to affect corporate policy. However, Comcast has not extended its 1 TB data cap into the northeastern U.S. where it faces significant competition from Verizon FiOS. Frontier, Spectrum, and Verizon have no hard caps. AT&T’s cap is relatively easy to escape if you bundle their streaming product with internet service.

Thanks, Phil! So we learned that there are a few big companies that have no hard data caps, and that’s good news for millions of subscribers. But most of those companies sell service that is hard to match with community broadband, and they will use predatory pricing to knock out the local competition if they have to, because they can subsidize one market for another until the local competition is gone.

Comcast seems to be the one company determined to enforce data caps as the largest ISP in the United States.

So maybe you want to while away the hours watching 4K TV. Or you’re planning on subscribing to Google Stadia to play games in 4K resolution. There may still hope for you. Community Broadband Networks has a nice interactive map that can show you where the community broadband networks are. Have a look:

I check into this map from time to time, too. I see now that they’ve identified more than 800 communities that are offering some form of locally owned and operated, municipal or cooperative internet access service. It wasn’t too long ago that there were only 450, so the trend is accelerating as word gets around that cities and communities can roll their own internet access.

Notice all the state in red. Those states are where the incumbent ISPs bought off the legislature just enough to pass model legislation (a template) that makes it hard for communities to build their own networks. There are about 22 states affected by such legislation, but for more than 100 communities in Colorado, that didn’t stop them from trying and succeeding in asserting local choice for internet access in their neighborhoods.

If you are tired of being nickel and dimed by the incumbent ISP in your city, check out that map to see if you have a local municipal or cooperative network. You may very well find a great alternative to the incumbent ISP in your neighborhood. And if you do, you can stop the cap.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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