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Comcast's Data Cap Hike: Good News, Bad News

A surcharge beats losing access, but have the carriers lost their taste for throttling?

Comcast plans to fiddle with its longstanding 250 GB data cap for broadband subscribers.

The company will run two trials in several markets, and both will bump the cap to at least 300 GB for all users. In one test, subscribers to higher-speed Internet will get more data, and in the other, everyone will get 300 GB. Users who exceed their limit in either trial will have to pay an overage charge -- possibly $10 per 50 GB.

This is good news and bad news. Streaming video services such as Netflix and YouTube gobble up an increasing amount of data, and although most Internet subscribers consume nowhere near 250 GB per month, Comcast is at least acknowledging that it must offer more data for subscribers who do.

Still, Comcast's increased data allotment feels like a distraction from the main policy change, which swaps hard data limits for overage charges. In the past, Comcast cut off users who exceeded their limit twice in a six-month span. In Comcast's trials, subscribers who use too much data will simply pay extra, just as you do for exceeding the limit on a smartphone data plan.

Hidden Costs

I think overage fees are better than yanking your account, but if Comcast really wanted to take a consumer-friendly approach, the company would just throttle users who go over their limit, or at least give them that option. Instead, Comcast wants to turn heavy data users into a revenue opportunity. It's not ideal, but it's understandable from a business angle.

The real trouble comes with Comcast's approach to net neutrality. The company landed in hot water with neutrality advocates last month when it announced that its Xfinity app for the Xbox 360 wouldn't count against users' data caps. In essence, users who watch lots of streaming video through other services, such as Netflix, risk hitting the cap and paying an overage fee, while users who stick with Xfinity can stream as much as they want, worry-free.

The writing's on the wall: If you're going to cut the cable cord, Comcast has a plan to get its money back. As with AT&T's switch to data caps for home broadband, precedent is the issue. You may not use 300 GB at the moment, but streaming video is going to get bigger, inevitably at the expense of cable TV. Service providers are planting the seeds of protection now.

Incidentally, Comcast will offer unlimited data for users outside of its trial markets, while the company tests the new 300 GB plans. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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