By the Blouin News Technology staff

Consumers in the dark about data caps in the U.S.

by in Personal Tech.

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Adam Berry/Getty Images

There is no such thing as free data — every internet users knows this. But the U.S. Government Accountability Office has recently released findings about the use of data caps by U.S. broadband providers. Internet service providers (ISPs) — both wired and mobile — are embracing monthly data caps, but customers are confused about how much data they use and plan options. This research plays into the current widespread skepticism of ISPs’ honesty and interests in best serving the consumer as the net neutrality debate rages in the U.S.

VISUAL CONTEXT: MOBILE INTERNET USE IN THE U.S.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

The four largest U.S. mobile carriers and seven of the 13 largest wireline broadband providers have data-capped subscriptions in place, the GAO said.

The preliminary report was released by Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo of California, with the full report to come in November. Re/Code quotes Eshoo:

As the FCC continues to seek comment on its proposed net neutrality rules, it’s more important than ever that policymakers understand data caps and how they might enable broadband providers to circumvent open internet rules that ensure consumers have uninhibited access to the internet.

While most internet and especially mobile users are no doubt used to having to pay extra for exceeding data caps on their plans, the information that is more unsettling is when ISPs throttle service once users exceed their allotted data. The GAO said that one of the mobile carriers it scrutinized throttles connection speeds when users exceed data caps. Three mobile carriers charge for extra data.

Managing web traffic is a top concern of the Federal Communications Commission, as it is for many consumer advocates in the U.S. The recent hullabaloo surrounding ISPs’ control of their networks in relation to content providers and direct-to-consumer traffic quality is a hot-button subject as the government wrestles with implementing net neutrality rules. As more users come online, the concerns surrounding their understandings of data caps — how much data they need versus how much they use — will be of growing importance.

Reuters notes that consumers in eight focus groups the GAO conducted in Baltimore, Des Moines, New York City and Las Vegas had much stronger reactions to the pricing of wired internet plans versus wireless ones — reactions that likely stem from users’ heavy reliance on internet at home versus mobile usage. The goal for some lawmakers such as Eshoo is to use research such as the GAO’s to require ISPs to face the music and delineate internet pricing plans and data caps more clearly.