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AT&T Lets Users Avoid Broadband Caps...If They Use AT&T's Own Streaming Service

So we've long noted how broadband usage caps on fixed-line broadband connections are bullshit. While ISPs used to insist that such limits were necessary to manage "congestion," they've long since been forced to back off those justifications after analysis and their own internal documents showed this wasn't true. For giants like AT&T and Comcast, monthly broadband caps serve two purposes: one, they provide flimsy cover allowing ISPs to further raise rates on what are already some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. Two, they can be used anti-competitively to give themselves an unfair advantage.

Case in point: ISPs will often exempt their own services from these limits while still penalizing competitors like Netflix, something the former Wheeler FCC was just starting to crack down on as an anti-competitive practice before Trump and Ajit Pai rose to power. And this week, AT&T took another step toward using usage caps as a weapon when it began informing its broadband customers that they won't face usage caps -- if they're willing to subscribe to AT&T's own streaming services:

"[AT&T] is emailing their broadband customers to alert them they now qualify for unlimited internet access because they also happen to subscribe to DirecTV Now, AT&T’s streaming service targeting cord cutters...AT&T normally charges customers an extra $30 a month to remove their 1,000 GB data cap.

In other words, use Netflix's service? Get penalized and pay more. Use our own? Avoid any penalties. It's ironic, given I'd just written a piece over at The Verge this week highlighting most of the dirty tricks AT&T was likely to use as it slowly takes advantage of the death of net neutrality rules and the general lack of adult oversight at the FCC. Users in several online forums have confirmed the move. AT&T confirmed to me that this was a new policy, but wouldn't speak publicly on the record about it for what should probably be obvious reasons.

To clarify, AT&T applies a terabyte cap on most of its fixed-line broadband connections. Users can then pay AT&T an additional $30 per month to avoid this unnecessary limit. Previously, AT&T removed this cap if you bundled the company's traditional TV services. Now, it's removing the caps for free if you bundle AT&T's own streaming service, giving AT&T a pretty obvious leg up on competitors like Amazon, Netflix, or smaller streaming operators. And while many argue that a terabyte is generous, that ignores the fact these limits are unnecessary in the first place, or that these limits will start to feel tight once 4K streaming truly takes off.

Since there's limited competition in broadband, consumers who don't like these kinds of arbitrary limits and anti-competitive gamesmanship usually have no alternative ISPs to choose from. And of course that's always been the whole point: ISPs want to abuse a lack of competition to use their role as network operators to drive up rates and hamstring competitors. This agenda has always been painfully obvious; part of the reason informed consumers found the Ajit Pai FCC's attacks on net neutrality rules so myopic and obnoxious.

Given the FCC's landmark net neutrality vote just passed its one-year anniversary, I've seen more than a few dumb hot takes suggesting that because the internet didn't completely fall apart in the last year, the rules must not have meant much. But that (usually intentionally) ignores that most ISPs are trying hard to behave given next February's looming court challenge. It also ignores the fact that violations of net neutrality have always been a "death by a thousand cuts" sort of affair, where we increasingly say yes to tighter and tighter restrictions and idiotic anti-competitive caveats, only realizing what we've given up once it's too late.

Picture yourself, the consumer, as the frog in the boiling frog fable.

First the public gets used to unnecessary usage caps and overage fees. Then, the public gets used to usage caps only applying to ISP competitors. From there, you accept additional unnecessary restrictions like HD video not working properly on your "unlimited" data plan unless you pony up more cash. Individually it's pretty easy to dismiss these moves one at a time (and many clearly do), but it shouldn't be hard to see that eventually, you wind up with a decidedly tilted playing field, made worse by an Ajit Pai FCC whose interests pretty clearly exclusively rests with helping these entrenched mono/duopolies make more money, not consumer welfare, sustaining competition, or protecting the health of the internet.

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