Eshoo: Data caps are the new 'threat' online

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to consider “data caps” as it rewrites its controversial net neutrality rules.

In a letter to the FCC Tuesday, Eshoo, the top Democrat on the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, shared the preliminary findings of a Government Accountability Office study about data caps, which she described as “a new threat to the free and open Internet.”

Data caps are the limits Internet providers and wireless phone companies place on customers’ data consumption. 

Internet providers and wireless companies often charge users for exceeding those limits or slow users’ Internet speeds.

According to the report’s preliminary findings, consumers are generally uninformed about how data caps work and how to choose the data limits that suit them best.

The study consisted of consumer focus groups in four major cities across the country, and the final report will be released in November, according to the GAO.

All four of the wireless companies examined impose data caps; three charge if a user exceeds the data cap and one slows the user’s Internet speed, the GAO found.

Seven of the 13 Internet providers impose data caps, some offer tiers of data usage and then charge users when they exceed a tier’s limits, while others offer tiers but don't charge if a user exceeds the limit.

According to Eshoo, the FCC should consider these data cap practices as it rewrites its net neutrality rules, which kept Internet providers from slowing or blocking access to certain websites before they were struck down by a federal court earlier this year.

Eshoo warned against data caps that could be used to keep consumers tied to an Internet providers’ products.

For instance, a cable company’s data caps could keep a consumer from watching certain video programming online, meaning the consumer would have to rely on the cable company’s video offerings.

“Data caps, particularly when they’re applied discriminatorily, could have the same damaging effect, I think, on the free and open Internet as we know it,” as insufficient net neutrality protections, she said at an event unveiling the preliminary findings.

In her letter to Wheeler, Eshoo said the preliminary findings shed “light on the effects of data caps, including the potential impact on 'cord-cutters' and suggests that consumers may not be fully benefitting” data cap models that can offer lower prices.

“Ultimately, whether accessing the Internet through a mobile device or through a wired broadband connection at home, consumers have come to expect an experience that includes streaming high definition video, downloading music, and video conferencing with family and friends using the app or service of their choice.”