Senators say ISP data caps blocking access to online schooling

(Photo: Pexels/Creative Commons)

Eleven senators sent a letter to top executives of more than a half-dozen telecommunications companies urging them to drop broadband Internet data caps, saying the tech limitation is preventing some kids from attending schools online during the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter, sent on September 11 to executives at AT&T, Comcast, CenturyLink, Charter/Spectrum, Cox Cable, T-Mobile and Verizon, urged companies to drop broadband data caps so kids could attend school remotely without their parents worrying about overage charges on their bills.

Four of the Internet service providers (ISPs) targeted in the letter currently impose a 1TB or higher broadband data cap on Internet customers. The companies say that data cap is used to prevent network congestion, though the data cap can be lifted if customers pay a separate fee or bundle their Internet service with another offered by the company.

Two other ISPs listed in the letter — T-Mobile and Verizon — do not have a hard broadband data cap, though they do slow down Internet speeds after a certain amount of data has been reached. The companies say this is only done during times of network congestion, though both have acceptable use policies that allow them to terminate their services to customers who use an abundance of data within a billing cycle.

The seventh ISP mentioned in the letter, Charter/Spectrum, currently does not have a broadband Internet data cap because of a stipulation reached with federal regulators before the two companies merged. Charter/Spectrum is now trying to get that pre-merger condition lifted.

Many ISPs voluntarily agreed to lift broadband data caps when the coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year as more individuals began working remotely from home. The move had a negligible effect on network congestion, suggesting the imposition of the caps was arbitrary to begin with. In most cases, the data caps were restored after a few months.

On Friday, the 11 senators said the imposition of a broadband data cap has the ability to prevent children from attending online classes because many of those courses are being conducted through Zoom or other remote video services that use a higher than normal amount of broadband data compared to ordinary activity like checking email or surfing the web.

“The need to accommodate an unprecedented reliance on data services to provide education continues,” the senators wrote. “We have heard from public schools who express appreciation for internet service options that enable remote learning, but are also concerned with ongoing data limitations and continued lack of service for many households.”

The senators said they’ve already heard from parents and educators who have complained about data caps interfering with remote learning courses since the start of the school year.

“Those who have no other option find themselves buried in overage fees,” the senators wrote. “In some cases, we’ve learned that eligibility for new services announced for low-income households is barred if that household has missed monthly payments in the past. These predicaments shine a light on our growing digital divide and threaten the education and subsequent futures of our students.”

As of Sunday morning, it was unclear if the letter had received a response from any of the ISPs targeted.