Comcast Raising Ceiling for Broadband Data Trials to 1 Terabyte

Comcast’s controversial trial of usage-based broadband policies in select markets is going up a notch. 

The operator announced in this blog post Thursday that it is moving to a terabyte data plan in all of those test markets starting June 1, a decision that comes soon after the FCC announced several proposed conditions on the pending Charter-Time Warner Cable merger, including one that would prohibit  Charter from imposing data caps and usage-based data pricing for a period of seven years.

Customers who go over that 1 TB monthly limit can buy additional buckets of 50 GB of data for $10 each, or move to a new unlimited data plan that runs an additional $50 per month.

“All the data plans in our trial markets will move from a 300 gigabyte data plan to a terabyte by June 1st, regardless of the speed,” Marcien Jenckes, Comcast Cable’s EVP, consumer services, wrote.

Prior to this coming change, Comcast has been testing several usage-based policies, including an unlimited data option that runs an additional fee of $30 to $35 per month, depending on the market, and only in a subset of its trial markets.

Comcast has also been testing a soft, monthly usage cap of 300 Gigabytes per month that charges $10 for each additional bucket of 50 GB above that threshold (with a “three-month courtesy program” that won’t bill subs the first three times they exceed the monthly limit). Comcast is also testing a more variable usage-based policy in Tucson, Ariz., that adjusts the monthly consumption ceiling based on the speed of the customer’s data tier, as well as a “Flexible-Data Option” for lighter users on the MSO’s Economy Plus and Performance Starter tiers.

Update: Comcast confirmed that customers currently on the unlimited plan in the trial markets can keep their current pricing through end of 2016. They'll also have the option to move to the new 1 TB plan when it takes effect June 1. 

Comcast has not announced if or when it will implement a usage-based policy on a commercial basis. So far, trials have been limited to the following areas: Huntsville, Mobile and Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Tucson; Little Rock, Ark.; Fort Lauderdale, the Keys and Miami, Fla.; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Ga.; Central Kentucky; Houma, LaPlace and Shreveport, La.; Maine; Jackson and Tupelo, Miss.; Chattanooga, Greenville, Johnson City/Gray, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Charleston, S.C.; and Galax, Va. Comcast’s data usage plans do not currently apply to customers on the MSO’s fiber-based Extreme 505 and Gigabit Pro services, and also have not been applied to Comcast business service customers and those on “bulk Internet agreements.”

"We’re currently evaluating our plans to roll this out in other markets, we’ll keep listening – and we'll be open to making further changes in the future to deliver the best high-speed data service to our customers," Jenckes said. 

In those pilot markets, "[W]e have experimented with different offers, listened to feedback, and learned a lot. That is what we said we would do when we launched our trials four years ago – analyze and assess our customers' reaction to the data plans, including being open to increasing them over time."

He said the new data limit on the trial policy “is so high that most of our customers will never have to think about how much data they use.”

Currently, more than 99% of Comcast’s high-speed Internet subs “do not come close to using a terabyte,” he added, noting that the typical sub uses about 60 GB of data, or about 6% of 1 TB, per month. Jenckes also tossed in some figures to illustrate how much 1 TB represents – 700 hours of HD video, playing 12,000 hours of online games, and downloading 60,000 hi-res photos in a month.

Comcast has previously argued that the trials are “based on principles of flexibility and fairness.” Critics of the policies believe they are in place to generate more broadband revenues while keeping growing over-the-top video competition in check. 

Outside of the proposed condition on the Charter-TWC deal, the FCC is also looking into data cap and zero-rating policies, but earlier this month FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said he had no timetable to offer on when the Commission would complete its review.