Crossposted from Public Knowledge

A recent  survey of adults who use their cell phones to access the Internet found that 2 in 5 Latinos and half of African Americans- double the rate of Whites- conduct a majority or all of their web browsing via their cell phones. While smart phones enable communities to cross over the traditional digital divide and become Internet users, they are not perfect solutions. Data caps have the potential to restrict how and when Internet users go online. As data caps on mobile devices become standard practice, and unlimited data plans dissappear, the importance of carrier transparency about caps will increase.

For many people, it makes sense to rely on their smart phone as their primary Internet connection. Families often cite high cost as a barrier to broadband adoption. Smart phones usually cost less than laptops or tablets and can still access the Internet. Despite the limitations of these devices, such as the difficulty of filling out applications on a mobile site, Latinos, African Americans, and young people are more likely to use their mobile device  as the main source of Internet access versus a traditional computer.

Engaging in these activities with smart phones may be convenient and affordable- but it also uses data. Cell phone companies are increasingly implementing limits or caps on that data. These caps can turn mobile browsing into a poor substitute for traditional wired Internet connections. Switching to Wi-Fi for web browsing is not always an option for users without wired broadband connections – hence the appeal of mobile devices that access networks.  

Unlike minutes called and texts sent, the measurements used for tracking data usage are meaningless to most people. Streaming rates vary and web pages change every day, so it can be difficult for people to develop habits that let them guess how much data an activity will require.  For example, wireless carriers cannot even agree on how much data an activity requires: AT&T estimates that streaming video requires 300 MB per hour.  Verizon says it is 350.  If wireless carriers’ estimates vary by that much, it is not realistic to demand that users will have an accurate understanding of the data needs of various activities.

Miscalculating network usage can cause customers to be hit with overage fees- $10 per gigabyte in the case of AT&T and Verizon or with slower service in the case of T-Mobile. To a family on a budget or a person who relies on quick Internet service to complete homework, the threat of those penalties may hinder how often they choose to go online.

As they stand, data caps can act as a deterrent to consistent Internet use.  Users who rely on their mobile connections for Internet access must actively support government oversight of data caps and other usage based pricing practices that affect an affordable and open access to the Internet.

Public Knowledge, along with other public interest groups, has repeatedly called for industry leaders to disclose how their caps are determined. It’s also important for consumers to encourage their providers to engage in best practices and insist on transparent and straightforward means to measure data usage. The digital divide in communities is wide enough without the help of data caps. 

Clarissa Ramon is the Government Affairs & Outreach Associate at Public Knowledge. 


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