Massachusetts Lawmakers Want Comcast to Stop Grifting Customers Until the Pandemic Is Over

Massachusetts Lawmakers Want Comcast to Stop Grifting Customers Until the Pandemic Is Over
Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Comcast celebrated the new year by rolling out its data caps and predatory overage fees to millions of customers in the northeastern United States, but lawmakers in Massachusetts aren’t having it. They’ve proposed a temporary ban on data caps, additional fees, and price hikes on home-internet services to keep folks from losing web access during an international health crisis.

As spotted by Ars Technica, Democratic state representatives Andy Vargas and Dave Rogers filed the proposal on Tuesday, and they’ve made it crystal clear who the bill’s targeting. Vargas tweeted this week that the proposed ban is in “response to Comcast Internet data cap plans,” and Rogers added that it would “push back at Comcast and any other service providers who try to raise prices or fees during a pandemic.”

Comcast has been enforcing a 1.2 TB monthly data cap for its Xfinity customers in many states for years, but in November the company announced it planned to bring the cap to the remainder of its territory, including Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, as well as parts of North Carolina and Ohio. Customers not on an unlimited plan who exceed that limit get slapped with a $US10 ($13) fee for every 50 GB of data they go over, up to $US100 ($130).

With so many workplaces and schools going virtual as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, people are depending on their ISPs now more than ever to stay connected. In-home data usage across the U.S. jumped by nearly 20 per cent in the first weeks of March compared to 2019 as many states began imposing lockdown measures. So it feels particularly vicious and cruel for Comcast to take advantage of the situation by tacking on extra fees at a time when people are holding up in their homes to avoid potentially contracting a deadly virus. Not to mention that several major ISPs temporarily suspended their data caps in the early days of the pandemic and the internet didn’t exactly crash and burn then, only further proving that these caps are every bit the arbitrary, money-grubbing ploy that past research indicates they are.

Massachusetts’ proposed ban would technically extend to the state’s other leading providers, Verizon Fios and RCN, but neither of them currently impose data caps, Ars Technica reports. The bill proposes “an emergency law, necessary for the immediate preservation of the public convenience” that would stay in effect “for the duration” of Massachusetts’ ongoing covid-19 state of emergency, which was originally declared by Governor Charlie Baker back in March.

If passed, ISPs would essentially have their hands tied when it comes to price gouging customers. In addition to a ban on new data caps, ISPs would also not be allowed to “increase the cost of any Broadband Internet Access Services” or “levy any new fees or charges related to Broadband Internet Access Services” for their subscribers. They also wouldn’t be able to “shut off Broadband Internet Access Service or services for subscribers that are unable to pay overdue bill[s] due to financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 emergency.”

These provisions would remain in place for at least 60 days after the state of emergency is declared to be over, though the bill leaves room for the governor to potentially extend the ban “for a maximum of 180 days” after that time. The bill currently has 27 cosponsors and looks likely to pass given the Democratic majority in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Earlier this month, a group of 71 Massachusetts legislators led by Vargas and Rogers wrote a letter to Comcast calling for the company stop enforcing its monthly data caps, arguing that it has more than enough network capacity to handle the demand, and its completely arbitrary fees disproportionately hurt low-income folks who are already struggling amid the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Comcast tried to cushion its rollout of new fees by offering customers “credit” to waive overage costs for the first few months of 2021. Moving forward, customers will also get one “courtesy” credit every year if they accidentally exceed their cap, an easy mistake to make given that Comcast doesn’t offer an option for them to independently verify metre readings.

For its part, Comcast says it will warn customers as they approach their monthly data limit, and has claimed that 95% of its customers don’t use anywhere near that much data every month. Comcast did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment about the proposed bill and we’ll update this blog when we hear back.