There are broad, sweeping implications for the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. This is not one of them. This is a very specific, fine print change. But for TWC customers—and, eventually, the rest of us—it's going to be the single worst part of the deal. Welcome to broadband data caps! They're here to ruin everything.
When we asked readers a few weeks ago how often they blow through their internet provider data caps, the majority of people didn't even realize such a thing existed. Which is fair; if you're a Time Warner Cable customer, it doesn't. You're free to suck down as much broadband as you want, no questions asked, no penalties imposed.
Life is not so sweet in the land of Comcast. The biggest cable company in the country also has one of the more restrictive data caps. Anything over 300GB per month is subject to a penalty. Which means that if this deal goes through, TWC customers are about to go from a neverending firehose to a reservoir that, while ample, eventually trickles out.
Here's the good news: Comcast has been taking an extended breather on enforcing its cap, presumably in part because such a small percentage of its users actually exceeds them. Right now if you manage to go over 300GB per month, you're let off with a warning. But don't expect that to last.
This is the part of the horror movie where our college co-eds rest easy, assuming the psycho bad guy has slunk off into the woods in search of beefier prey. In fact, Comcast is simply gathering itself, charting its plan of attack. It's already testing overage fees ($10 for every 50GB over the allotted 300GB) in major markets in Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississsippi. And adding Time Warner Cable's 11 million broadband customers to its stable will embolden—and enable—Comcast to push cap penalties even more aggressively. The fewer exits available, the harder it is to escape Jason's machete.
Right now you're probably thinking that this doesn't apply to you; 300GB is a very large amount of data, a sum you're not likely to reach even on your busiest months. And for now, you may be right. But soon, you'll be very wrong.
Data cap overages right now are mainly the provenance of heavy online gamers. But as streaming services become more and more prevelant—and more robust—that's going to change. What happens three years from now when you're streaming 4K Netflix on your ultra high def television? What happens as console gaming leans more and more heavily on downloadable content? Most importantly: What happens if you try to cut the cord?
That's where broadband data caps are truly insidious; you may be able to escape your monthly cable bill, but you're still stuck paying Comcast for access to the internet that powers your Hulu Plus, Aereo, Netflix smorgasboard. And because Comcast presumably knows how math works, the caps will be just low enough, the penalties just high enough, and the 12-month introductory bundle offers just appealing enough that cord-cutting no longer makes financial sense for you. It'll be the same money, going to the same company, with a few extra monthly subscriptions thrown in for good measure.
Yes, there are ways to cut ties with your broadband provider, but none of them is particularly practical unless you live in a Google Fiber town. Which is why the worst thing for TWC customers if this deal is allowed to happen is also the worst thing for the rest of us. It'll normalize broadband data cap, legitimizing them as the cost of doing business. It happened to mobile, it'll happen to broadband. They're going to bleed us dry—and kill the cord-cutting dream—faster than ever, death by a thousand overages.