With millions of Americans stuck at home to protect themselves from a deadly pandemic during the holiday season, the internet is one of the only conduits connecting them to friends, family, and the outside world. Now, Comcast, one of the monopoly corporations that controls the conduit, is extending its fees on bandwidth usage to all thirty-nine states where it operates — even as the company has received hundreds of millions of dollars of public subsidies and new tax breaks.
Whether or not those data caps remain permanent could hinge on whether president-elect Joe Biden and Democrats are willing to take action against a corporation that has been one of their major campaign donors.
At issue is Comcast’s move on Monday that caps home internet usage at 1.2TB of data per month for its customers in twelve additional states, and charging customers up to $100 per month if they exceed the cap. Comcast’s move was flagged by Stop the Cap, which discovered that the company had quietly updated language on its website.
The new limits, which will take effect in March, are being imposed in states that have given Comcast and its subsidiaries more than $738 million in tax subsidies in the last few decades. Those states include New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, where state and local governments have given Comcast and its subsidiaries $484 million, $132 million, and $79 million in tax subsidies, respectively, according to data from Good Jobs First.
In all, Comcast and its subsidiaries — which include NBC and MSNBC — have received nearly $1 billion in state and local subsidies. Additionally, Comcast received $861 million in federal tax subsidies during the first year of the Trump tax cuts, according to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy.
“This is why monopolies are bad,” tweeted Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization. “Comcast can arbitrarily exploit us for profit during a pandemic just because it feels like it. Meanwhile, Comcast collects tons of tax breaks and government subsidies. Comcast should be broken up.”
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recommended in March that internet service providers relax their data cap policies in order to “promote connectivity” during the pandemic. The recommendation was attached to an FCC campaign to ensure continued internet service throughout the pandemic, called the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” which Comcast signed. The pledge expired on June 30.
In 2018, Comcast announced that it had disabled the system it used to slow down heavy internet users because its network was strong enough to handle the traffic. Without the need for a congestion management system, it was unclear why data caps were ever necessary in the twenty-seven states where Comcast included them as part of its Internet plans. Comcast reportedly said it was keeping the data caps in place “based on a principle of fairness.”
FCC Could Take Action, But Biden Has Close Ties To Comcast
In the past, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have floated the idea of restricting or banning data caps. In 2012, for example, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden authored legislation to limit data caps, but the bill was bottled up in the Senate.
That same year, the “telecom industry spent more than $97.6 million on lobbying and hired 603 lobbyists to argue on its behalf – more than half of the industry’s lobbyists were former government employees,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which noted that was part of the nearly $1 billion the industry spent on lobbying over the last decade.
More recently, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in March 2020 said: “Where data caps are in place, we need to explore how those limitations can be eliminated.”
New FCC appointees by president-elect Joe Biden could in theory crack down on data caps — but Biden and his party have deep ties to Comcast.
In all over the last decade, Comcast donors have delivered more than $25 million to Democrats.
During the presidential primaries, seventeen top Comcast executives maxed out their federal contributions to Biden, while Pete Buttigieg was the only other Democratic contender to receive a contribution from a Comcast executive (and he received only one), according to reporting from Sludge in January. Comcast’s senior executive vice president and top lobbyist, David Cohen, hosted Biden’s kickoff fundraiser for his presidential campaign in 2019.
Comcast is an aggressive political player in Washington — the company belongs to Broadband for America, an industry group that submitted more than 1.5 million fake comments, impersonating individuals, to the FCC opposing net neutrality rules protecting internet users. Buzzfeed called it “the most prolific known instance of political impersonation in U.S. history.”
Its efforts could pay off to the public’s detriment.