How to Fight Internet Data Caps — and Avoid Bigger Bills


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What you can do to avoid paying more for your Internet use, and why you should care even if you don't use the offending carrier (Comcast).

Comcast has been rolling out data caps in cities across the country. Unsurprisingly, the affected consumers have been less than enthusiastic about the change. What do these caps mean? Is there any way to avoid them? And should you care if you don’t have Comcast?

To answer the last question first: Yes, you should care. Remember when airlines started rolling out extra baggage fees? First one did it, then it wasn’t too long before the others jumped on board. Comcast may be the first to do this, but if they can pull it off, they won’t be the last.

Here’s how it works: The cable giant allows people to consume 300 gigabytes of data a month; after that, they charge extra. And, no, they don’t lower your bill if you come in under the number.

That much data is roughly equivalent to watching about five hours of television every day for a month. Comcast says only about 5 percent of their customers exceed this number. You might think, “Well, that’s fine. I don’t watch that much TV.” But remember: All TVs using the connection are consuming data, so if you’re watching the game while your spouse is watching “Downton Abbey” in another room, it adds up. Second, remember that this metering extends to all data, not just your TV. Sending emails, reading the news, watching videos on YouTube, playing games online, using your home Wi-Fi to get around your cellphone’s data limits — they all contribute to your usage.

There are some competitors who believe that 300 GB number was not chosen arbitrarily. They point out that the average American watches about five hours of TV a day, so the number was designed to make it unattractive for people to cut out their cable service and replace it with Netflix, Hulu and the like. They’re considering taking legal action under net neutrality rules and a number of advocacy groups are protesting data caps — so the longer-term picture is unclear.

In the meantime, here’s what you can do:

1. Watch Comcast’s own stuff

Comcast’s own streaming services, such as OnDemand and StreamTV, as well as regular TV, don’t count toward the monthly data metering. So, if the show you want to watch is on both Netflix and OnDemand, watching it on OnDemand will help you stay under your limit. (However: This is actually the root of the net neutrality complaint against Comcast. Other companies argue this amounts to favoritism that may be forbidden under federal regulations.)

2. Secure your router

If you haven’t got a good password on your router already, it’s even more important that you install one now. If someone else is using your Wi-Fi, they’re eating up data and you’re paying for it.

3. Use your phone if you can

If you happen to be one of those folks who still has unlimited data for their phone, you can use it to create a Wi-Fi hotspot for streaming on your other devices. If you don’t know how to do this, here are instructions for set up on iPhone and Android. Of course, if you have a data limit on your phone, this won’t be a money-saving workaround.

4. Double-check them

Comcast has been known to make mistakes in tracking how much data you use. While they offer most customers a way to check their usage, you’re generally left taking them at their word. One way to double-check is to install a third-party firmware in your router. This can help you keep tabs on your data use and give you ammunition if they say you’ve gone over the cap when you haven’t. It has the added bonus of often being more difficult for hackers to break into.

5. Vote with your feet

Cable companies have a functional monopoly in most places. If you are one of the lucky handful of people who have another cable option, exercise it. Alternatively, consider a satellite dish, DSL or FiOS. While these solutions have problems of their own, switching means that Comcast loses market share, which may be the only thing that would make the company reconsider its data cap policy.

6. Lobby the government

This suggestion is obviously not a quick fix for your Internet bill, but it is really the one that could make a difference. Convincing the powers that be to declare the Internet to be a utility and to regulate it —  like electricity or natural gas — is one of the few ways to see real relief. (Municipal broadband might sound nice, but the costs make it unlikely to get off the ground in most cities.) Otherwise, given their dominant position in many markets, Comcast and other cable companies can engage in money grabs like this with impunity.

You can voice your opinion by filing a complaint with the FCC. (According to this advocacy group, the FCC has vowed to take action if Comcast or other company attempts to take its data cap plan nationwide.) There are also groups, including Change.org that are collecting signatures to petition Comcast on the issue. This one, at Moveon.org, petitions the White House and Congress to stop Comcast data caps.

Have you run into the caps? Have strategies to avoid them? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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