In response to Comcast imposing a data cap on Massachusetts residents, state lawmakers have proposed a ban on data caps, new fees, and price increases on home-Internet services for the duration of the pandemic.
The legislation was filed on Tuesday this week by Democratic state representatives Andy Vargas and Dave Rogers. Vargas called the bill a “response to Comcast Internet data cap plans,” while Rogers said the goal is “to push back at Comcast and any other service providers who try to raise prices or fees during a pandemic.” Verizon FiOS and RCN also provide Internet service in Massachusetts but do not impose data caps.
Vargas and Rogers previously led a group of 71 Massachusetts lawmakers who urged Comcast to halt enforcement of its 1.2TB monthly data cap, arguing that the cap hurts low-income people and is unnecessary because of Comcast’s robust network capacity. While Comcast already enforced the data cap in 27 states for several years, the cable company brought the cap to the rest of its territory—an additional 12 states including Massachusetts and the District of Columbia—this month. Comcast is easing-in enforcement so that the first overage charges for newly capped customers will be assessed for data usage in the April 2021 billing period. (Update: The grace period has reportedly been extended until August.)
The Massachusetts House has a 128-30 Democratic majority. Besides Vargas and Rogers, the bill so far has 21 cosponsors, most of whom just signed on today. (Update on January 29: The bill now has 36 cosponsors in addition to Vargas and Rogers.) We contacted Comcast about the bill today and will update this article if we get a response.
No caps, price hikes, or Internet shutoffs
The bill proposes “an emergency law, necessary for the immediate preservation of the public convenience.” It would remain in effect “for the duration” of the COVID-19 state of emergency that was declared by Governor Charlie Baker in March 2020 and for at least 60 days after the state of emergency is declared to be ended.
If passed, ISPs would not be allowed to “impose new data caps or allowances onto their subscribers.” The bill would also impose “a moratorium on any pre-existing data caps or allowances” that were already imposed by ISPs.
Moreover, ISPs would not be allowed to “increase the cost” of Internet plans, “levy any new fees or charges” related to broadband service, or “shut off Broadband Internet Access Service or services for subscribers that are unable to pay overdue bill[s] due to financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 emergency.”
The bill would also repeal a Massachusetts law that prohibits state or municipal regulation of the “rates, terms or conditions of VoIP Service or IP enabled service.” The bill doesn’t take any further action on VoIP offerings such as the phone services provided by cable companies and other ISPs, though.
The bill’s prohibitions on data caps, price increases, new fees, and shutoffs would affect home-Internet services and mass-market retail plans available to business customers. The bill would not affect cellular or mobile Internet services, with one exception: the bill would apply to “hotspots provided to students for educational purposes.”
The proposal to ban Internet shutoffs is similar to a provision in the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” announced in March 2020 by then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. But with Pai having deregulated the broadband industry earlier in his term, the pledge was entirely voluntary for ISPs and expired at the end of June. Separately, Democrats in Congress proposed a law to ban Internet shutoffs until the pandemic is over, but it didn’t pass.
While the proposed Massachusetts emergency law would automatically expire 60 days after the state of emergency is declared to be over, it would also give the governor the option to extend the provisions “for a maximum of 180 days after the termination of the governor’s March 10, 2020 declaration of a state of emergency.”