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WOW to unleash data caps in June, starting in Chicago

WideOpenWest (WOW) has begun to alert customers in the Chicago area that the competitive cable operator will start to impose data caps and usage-based broadband policies starting in June.

It's not clear yet when or if WOW will implement those policies in other markets, as expansions into other areas are yet to be determined, according to a company spokesperson.

Initial customer communiques about the new policy, first spotted last week by Ars Technica, went to WOW customers in the Chicago area. WOW, which ended 2020 with about 818,000 high-speed Internet subscribers, also serves Detroit; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Evansville, Indiana; Knoxville, Tennessee.; and parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

According to its latest network management and practices documentation posted online, WOW will charge $10 for buckets of 50 gigabytes of data (maxing at $50 per month in overage fees) when customers exceed monthly data limits that rise and fall based on the customer's speed plan – up to 3 terabytes of data per month for customers on WOW's 1-Gig service. WOW will waive those fees the first time a customer exceeds the cap.

Here's how WOW's residential broadband data policy for Chicago currently stacks up:

Table 1:

Plan Monthly Data Usage AllowanceOverage Charge per 50GB of Additional Data Allowance
Internet 501024GB$10 each for up to 5 per month.
Internet 1001536GB$10 each for up to 5 per month.
Internet 1101536GB$10 each for up to 5 per month.
Internet 200 1536GB$10 each for up to 5 per month.
Internet 300 1536GB$10 each for up to 5 per month.
Internet 5002560GB$10 each for up to 5 per month.
Internet 6002560GB$10 each for up to 5 per month.
Internet 10003072GB$10 each for up to 5 per month.
Source: WideOpenWest.

A WOW official told Light Reading that its unlimited data option for the Chicago area is limited to its 1-Gig speed package, and sells for an additional $30 per month. Comcast, which competes with WOW in Chicago, also offers an unlimited data plan that fetches an additional $30 per month.

Although the new policy will initially focus on Chicago, WOW notes on its policy page that the company "retains the right to adopt different data consumption thresholds or other usage plans for the service at any time."

Change of heart

Still, the decision to impose data caps represents a big about face for the company. In a June 2017 press release, WOW boasted of a "commitment to continue to providing data-cap free Internet to all of its users," and a headline that it was taking the "consumer side in the data cap debate." However, a former WOW exec predicted in 2016 that it was likely a matter of time before most if not all ISPs eventually implemented data caps.

WOW's decision to go with a usage-based policy for broadband comes during a tricky time. During the early stages of the pandemic, some cable operators and ISPs temporarily paused usage-based policies and caps amid a spike in network usage caused by more people working and schooling from home. While some cable operators later reinstated those policies paired with higher monthly data ceilings, others dumped those policies for good.

Broadband-first focus

Meanwhile, WOW's apparent change of heart on data caps enters the picture amid an updated "broadband-first" strategy that emphasizes high-margin high-speed Internet service while relegating pay-TV to the back seat.

WOW, which predicted that it could lose more than half of its pay-TV customer base in the coming years, hardly promotes its own video services, including a new managed, app-based IPTV service called WOWtv+ that will not count against the usage-based data policy coming to Chicago.

Instead, WOW is promoting OTT-TV services from YouTube TV, FuboTV, Sling TV and Philo. WOW is also among a group of US broadband service providers that has partnered with MyBundle.TV, a startup that has developed a streaming marketplace and subscription management platform, along with a free algorithm-driven recommendation tool to help consumers determine which video streaming services best fit their needs.

WOW's pizza analogy

Meanwhile, WOW took some chiding from Ars Technica and The Verge about how the company framed its reasoning behind the decision, telling customers to imagine that the company's network to be as finite as a "pizza," with the size of each customer's "slice" represented by the size of their speed plan.

"Now, say you're not full after your slice and you grab another. That extra slice is like a data overage. Don't worry – we got extra pizza... umm, data... just in case," WOW explained in an email to affected customers obtained by Ars Technica.

While there is a specific amount of capacity and bandwidth dedicated to service groups hanging off the node in hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks, the pizza analogy falls apart when one considers that cable operators don't constantly carve up that capacity based solely on customer speed tiers but instead use more dynamic techniques to manage capacity as demand fluctuates.


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