Three Baltimore City councilmembers and the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition (BDEC) have called on Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to investigate Comcast for alleged price gouging based on a new plan that would charge customers for data usage over 1.2 terabytes per month.
But Comcast spokesperson Kristie Fox told Baltimore Fishbowl that the change will affect “a very small percentage of customers” who use more than 1.2 terabytes of data per month, which she called a “massive amount of data.”
“The customers that do go over that are putting the greatest demand on the network, so we’re just asking them to pay more for their increased usage,” Fox said.
Starting in August, Comcast customers who do not have unlimited data plans will be charged $10 for every 50 gigabytes of data they use over 1.2 terabytes, up to a maximum of $100 per month.
In a letter to Frosh on Tuesday, Baltimore City Councilmembers Ryan Dorsey (District 3), Zeke Cohen (District 1) and Kristerfer Burnett (District 8) and BDEC Director Tia Price argued that Comcast’s 1.2 terabyte data threshold will create a system of “digital redlining” and will disadvantage low-income, Black and Latinx households who would “bear the brunt of capricious fees.”
The councilmembers and BDEC director added that internet access is a “vital utility” as adults and children find themselves having to work and attend school virtually during the coronavirus pandemic.
About 96,000 Baltimore households lack home wireline broadband, and about 52,000 Baltimore households do not have any type of broadband, they wrote in their letter to Frosh, citing a 2019 Pew Research Survey.
“Unconscionable, predatory data capping amidst a global pandemic is not only an affordability issue but is one of accountability,” they wrote.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office confirmed that they received the letter and “it is certainly an issue we will look into.”
Fox said that Comcast customers use an average of 380 gigabytes of data per month, less than one-third of the 1.2 terabyte threshold that the company is implementing.
“We’re implementing this plan to drive consistency across our company nationwide,” she said.
Fox said that 1.2 terabytes is enough data for customers to watch 500 hours of HD video, participate in 3,500 hours of video conferencing, play online games for 34,000 hours, or stream music for more than 21,000 hours.
But using AT&T’s Internet Data Calculator, Technical.ly found that households could surpass the 1.2 terabyte threshold by streaming with 4K services for about six hours per day or 180 hours per month.
The Denver Post reported that Comcast’s President of Technology, Product and Xperience Tony Werner said on a conference call in March that people are using internet services at increased rates during the pandemic.
“Usage is on the rise as more people are working, learning, connecting and doing all of their entertaining from home. It has all been within the capability of the network,” Werner said.
Even with people using more data, however, about 95% of customers do not exceed the 1.2 terabytes of monthly data usage, Comcast tweeted in November.
Hi Alice. About 95 percent of our customers use less than 1.2TB and are not impacted by this plan – even with the spike in usage as customers are educating and working from home during COVID-19.
— Comcast (@comcast) November 24, 2020
Fox said there are options for customers who use more than 1.2 terabytes per month. Xfinity customers who already lease a modem can sign up for unlimited data with xFi Complete for $11 more per month. Customers who do not lease a modem can get unlimited data for $30 more per month.
Comcast will also provide one courtesy credit per year for customers who go over 1.2 terabytes, so they will not be charged, Fox said.
Fox would not comment on the letter authors’ allegations against Comcast of price gouging and digital redlining, but she pointed to the company’s efforts to increase digital access nationwide.
“I don’t think there’s a company that’s done more for the digital divide than Comcast over the past decade,” she said.
In September, Comcast announced plans to provide free Wi-Fi connection at more than 1,000 “Lift Zones” nationwide for individuals who have limited Wi-Fi access in their homes and communities.
The company on Monday announced 29 Lift Zones across Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia, including 15 sites in Baltimore.