On March 13, as concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic caused most of the nation to take drastic measures to socially distance and flatten the curve, the Federal Communications Commission launched the Keep Americans Connected Initiative. The initiative goes a long way towards ensuring that Americans can stay connected during this pandemic. But it fails to address a critical barrier to network access for the members of our community that are most digitally vulnerable: data caps.
Data caps are artificially imposed restrictions by telecom services on the amount of data a customer can transfer over a network. If you have a cellular plan that only includes 2 GB, 5 GB, or even 10 GB, you are subject to a data cap. If your so-called “unlimited” plan aggressively throttles your connection speed once you reach a monthly cap, you are also limited by a data cap.
As Public Knowledge has previously discussed, data caps are a bad idea. They prevent us from making full use of 4G, and soon 5G, technology. They discourage us from making software updates which threatens our cybersecurity. They allow for subtle forms of discrimination, where internet service providers exempt certain services or categories or service from the caps, pushing users to use those instead of competitive alternatives. And they keep us from accessing the internet and other data-dependent network services in times of crises, like we are facing today.
During a pandemic, network connectivity is critical. At a time when most states have closed non-essential businesses, companies that can support remote work are increasingly choosing to do so. Countless K-12 schools and universities have all moved to remote learning. And most states are telling people to apply for unemployment benefits and other emergency relief online. Unfortunately, these virtual solutions to our sudden need to socially distance are only effective for those who can actually access the internet.
Data caps inhibit these solutions by limiting a person’s network access. According to Verizon’s data calculator, streaming a standard definition video for as little as 10 minutes per day would use more than 3 GB of data per month. Now that we are expected to use data to work remotely, attend classes virtually, entertain ourselves from home, and seek emergency assistance digitally, a person can quickly exceed their data cap.
Although many companies have signed the FCC’s pledge to keep everyone connected during this pandemic, they have not pledged to waive data overage charges for those that will inevitably exceed their limited data plans with the increased use necessary to survive in our new virtual world. Some companies have gone a step further than the FCC’s pledge and offered their customers extra data, but this response is far from universal. The question shouldn’t be whether a particular carrier is feeling generous, but whether employees and students can rely on their broadband to see them through this crisis.
Moreover, contrary to popular belief, data caps fail to curb network congestion under normal circumstances, and certainly won’t now that we are depending on virtual services more than ever. Data caps do not actually encourage people to shift usage to non-peak times, when the network is less congested. The network usage data-capped people will most likely give up first is nighttime use when the infrastructure is the least taxed. Thus, data caps actually inhibit off-peak usage. This does not encourage efficiency; it is wasteful.
Regardless, time-shifting isn’t really the issue during a pandemic. We want people to use more bandwidth because we need them to stay home. Staying home flattens the curve. And staying home is easier when you can work, attend school, entertain yourself, and access necessary services from the comfort of your couch.
What’s particularly alarming about data caps during this crisis is that they disproportionately harm those already most disadvantaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data caps are a form of price discrimination, where ISPs charge different users different amounts for differing levels of service. There is nothing wrong with ISPs offering different tiers of service, but particularly in a critical situation such as this one, data caps are a bad way to go about it.
Young adults, minorities, and lower-income Americans often depend on their cell phone for internet access. The most affordable cell phone plans are usually subject to data caps and sold to budget-conscious consumers that rely on supplementing their limited data with WiFi. Even under normal circumstances, using public WiFi is not always an adequate solution. And it is even less of one now. Good luck trying to access the internet from the local coffee shop, library, or McDonald’s now that so many are closed.
The truth is, our economically vulnerable community members are also those most likely to feel the negative impact of data caps. If the FCC really wants to “keep America connected,” it is essential that they prohibit data caps during this pandemic. Doing so will help keep all members of our community connected and ensure that everyone can access the network services they need to survive the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
Tell Congress to require the FCC to ban data caps in the next stimulus bill at publicknowledge.org/FundOurBroadband.