Yesterday, Netflix called on the FCC to put an end to the practice of “data caps,” wherein subscribers to an internet service are only allowed to use so much data before their ISP begins charging them extra. It’s a particular favorite of Comcast, and it’s the latest front in Netflix’s long war against America’s broken-down system for getting online.
Why Are There Data Caps?
For many, the very presence of data caps is baffling. Data isn’t like the natural gas pumped into our homes or the milk in your fridge, after all. It’s just numbers. As long as we’ve got computers, wires, and electricity, data and its transmission is impossible to cap (in theory). The issue, however, lies in how our internet infrastructure was built and who controls it.
Most Americans get their broadband via copper cables strung up in the ’70s and ’80s for cable television. And since most municipalities didn’t have the resources to wire their towns and cities themselves, they sold franchises to private companies in exchange for up to 5 percent of the gross revenue. Many of those companies, to keep costs down, traded franchises to create long, contiguous blocks. And at the time, this wasn’t seen as a big deal; cable television, back in the day, was a luxury.
The problem came when those franchises started selling internet access. Cable was, in truth, the cheapest, quickest way to get many Americans on the internet, because the wires were already there and paid for. But it’s also increasingly created tension between customers, internet providers, and services like Netflix, because as we use the internet more, we’re forcing internet providers into a trap of their own making.
What Your Cable Company Doesn’t Want You To Know
Netflix has been at war with the cable industry almost from the minute it opened its streaming site’s doors, and it’s a war Netflix has fought on multiple fronts. From offering a free speed tool to outright directly accusing companies like Verizon of intentionally throttling their speed, the video delivery service has been waging a very public battle. And it’s one, in terms of public relations, that internet providers have been losing, not least because they don’t have any good answers for why they do what they do.
The basic argument on the part of internet providers is that Netflix, which is by far the biggest source of internet traffic during peak hours, puts an unfair strain on their network, and that data caps are necessary to keep a few users from crashing the whole system. Unless, of course, those users happen to be streaming video directly from that internet provider. What internet providers aren’t mentioning, though, is that this strain is entirely their own fault.
Most consumer internet connections in the United States are “oversubscribed,” or in other words, there are more users on the current cable infrastructure than that infrastructure can handle. If you look closely at your internet provider’s documentation, you’ll likely notice that it’s described as “best effort” service, and there’s a reason that tiny little “up to” wording exists next to the speed numbers on flyers. Legally speaking, that means you’ll get what service they can offer, but no promises.
Essentially, internet providers in America have been gambling, for a long time, that subscribers won’t notice they’re not getting all the speed they’re paying for, even as they’ve kept adding subscribers well beyond what their services can bear. And barring a few nerds calling them out, all of that was fine until Netflix came along and simultaneously undercut cable’s pay-per-view and DVR offerings while putting more strain on their networks than they were prepared to handle at the same time.
Internet providers have generally not handled this well. Comcast accused Netflix of, essentially, trying to frame them, for throttling internet speeds (accusing Netflix of slowing speeds themselves), and Verizon sent Netflix a furious cease and desist letter for informing their customers of what was happening.
No Way Out
Internet providers are, at their root, trying to avoid the inevitable — a rewiring of the United States to faster broadband, which has to happen. Consumer demand is there, and while Comcast and Verizon have made half-hearted, expensive efforts, Google Fiber is already in eight cities with four more in the works and 11 more working on clearing the legal barriers. “White space” broadband, essentially powerful wireless signals sent over TV spectrum, is so effective that places without electricity can get internet speeds faster than some metropolitan areas in America, and it’s already being used in rural areas.
Netflix’s bid to do away with data caps will undeniably help Netflix. They’re not pretending otherwise. But that Netflix even has to petition the government for this is thanks to an aging, broken system in desperate need of repair.