Groups ask FCC to investigate AT&T broadband caps

The broadband provider's new caps seem to be motivated by money, not network management, two groups say

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should investigate AT&T's new broadband caps and ask questions about why the company needs them, two broadband advocacy groups said.

AT&T's broadband-use caps went into effect Monday, with a 150 gigabyte-per-month limit for DSL (digital subscriber line) subscribers and 250 gigabytes for its U-verse subscribers. The caps raise several questions about AT&T's networks, said Public Knowledge and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative in a Friday letter to the FCC.

The AT&T broadband caps are "particularly aggressive," said the letter, signed by Harold Feld, legal director at Public Knowledge, and Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative. The broadband provider plans to charge subscribers an extra US$10 per 50 gigabytes after they exceed the caps three times.

"Unlike competitors whose caps appear to be at least nominally linked to congestions during peak-use periods, AT&T seeks to convert caps into a profit center by charging additional fees to customers who exceed the cap," the letter said. "In addition to concerns raised by broadband caps generally, such a practice produces a perverse incentive for AT&T to avoid raising its cap even as its own capacity expands."

AT&T has said about 2 percent of its customers will be affected by the caps. "Our usage-based pricing plan is about offering a high-quality, fair and affordable broadband service for all of our customers," an AT&T spokeswoman said. "It is designed to protect the low-volume consumer and provide the high-volume consumer with the necessary information ... prior to being billed for overages."

High-use subscribers will get at least six warnings before being charged extra, she said. The plan is "narrowly tailored to ensure that only those who use the most bandwidth pay for it," she added.

While the FCC has called for affordable, high-speed broadband, about 56 percent of U.S. broadband subscribers now have broadband-use caps on their service, the letter said.

"Caps on broadband usage imposed by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can undermine the very goals that the Commission has committed itself to championing," the letter said. "While broadband caps are not inherently problematic, they carry the omnipresent temptation to act in anticompetitive and monopolistic ways. Unless they are clearly and transparently justified to address legitimate network capacity concerns, caps can work directly against the promise of broadband access."

Feld and Meinrath also questioned why AT&T's broadband caps for DSL were lower than the 250 gigabyte-per-month cap that Comcast introduced for its cable broadband service in October 2008. DSL service is supposed to be less susceptible to network congestion than cable service, they wrote.

"Together, these caps suggest either that AT&T's current network compares poorly to that of a major competitor circa 2008 or that there are non-network management motivations behind their creation," they wrote.

Feld and Meinrath asked the FCC to inquire about what services are excluded from the caps, how often the cap is enforced and the steps AT&T is taking to warn customers about the caps.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentbroadbandregulationinternettelecommunicationat&tcomcastInternet service providersPublic KnowledgeHarold FeldNew America Foundation's Open Technology InitiativeSascha Meinrath

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