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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

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Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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SpaceX Starlink engineers take questions in Reddit AMA—here are highlights

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Enlarge / Starlink logo imposed on stylized image of the Earth.

SpaceX Starlink engineers answered questions in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Saturday, covering topics such as data caps (which they hope to never implement), when the public beta will expand to more users, and how the satellite-broadband service will expand and change in the future.

“Starlink is an extremely flexible system and will get better over time as we make the software smarter. Latency, bandwidth, and reliability can all be improved significantly,” the engineers wrote under the Reddit username “DishyMcFlatface,” which is also SpaceX’s nickname for the Starlink satellite dish.

Here are some highlights from the AMA.

No data caps “at this time”

When asked if users will ever face data caps, the Starlink team gave a vague answer: “At this time, the Starlink beta service does not have data caps.”

While that response covered the present but not the future, a subsequent comment from DishyMcFlatface gave a more detailed answer that suggests SpaceX is trying to avoid data caps:

So we really don’t want to implement restrictive data caps like people have encountered with satellite Internet in the past. Right now we’re still trying to figure a lot of stuff out—we might have to do something in the future to prevent abuse and just ensure that everyone else gets quality service.

Expanded beta in January—no bribes required

Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle's Coeur d'Alene National Forest.

Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle’s Coeur d’Alene National Forest.

Many people who haven’t been able to get the Starlink beta are eagerly awaiting updates on availability, and the AMA provided an answer. SpaceX is “steadily increasing network access over time to bring in as many people as possible,” the Starlink team wrote. “Notably, we’re planning to move from a limited beta to a wider beta in late January, should give more users an opportunity to participate.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a similar update on Twitter a few weeks ago when a user asked when the beta will come to Florida. “Lower-latitude states need more satellites in position, so probably January,” Musk wrote at the time.

As before, people hoping to get Starlink can enter their email and service address on the Starlink website and hope to hear back. Bribes apparently won’t help. When one Reddit user asked, “How are beta users chosen and what’s a good bribe amount?” the Starlink team answered, “No bribes necessary, our goal is serve everyone eventually.”

More engineers needed

The Starlink team told Reddit users several times that SpaceX is looking for more engineers. In the answer about when the beta will expand, DishyMcFlatface wrote, “If you really want to help drive that, the best thing you can do is send great software engineers over to Starlink to help make it happen.”

Over a dozen jobs in Starlink production design, product design, and software are available, and links to the job posts can be found in this DishyMcFlatface comment. “We are super excited about the initial response and future potential of Starlink, but we still have a ton to learn,” the Starlink team wrote. “If you know any great people who can help us with that, please have them email their resume to starlink@spacex.com.”

Will Starlink work away from home?

A few weeks ago, we wrote about a Starlink beta user who took the satellite dish and a portable power supply to a national forest in Idaho, where he was able to get fast Internet service. But that doesn’t mean you can take the dish just anywhere, as SpaceX currently only promises that it will work at each beta user’s service address.

One Reddit user who lives and works on a boat docked in South Florida wanted to know if Starlink will provide service on the open seas. “A mobile system that gives me reliable connectivity will truly set me free to roam the coastal US, Bahamas, and eventually beyond,” the user wrote.

Starlink answered:

Right now, we can only deliver service at the address you sign up with on starlink.com. You might get lucky if you try to use Starlink in nearby locations, but service quality may be worse.

Mobility options—including moving your Starlink to different service addresses (or places that don’t even have addresses!)—is coming once we are able to increase our coverage by launching more satellites & rolling out new software.

SpaceX recently asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to test Starlink user terminals “on seagoing platforms” and on private jets.

Storms and extreme temperatures

A Reddit user asked if the satellite dish will work in heavy wind, such as when mounted “on the tail of a flatbed trailer flying down the interstate into a collapsing thunderstorm.” The SpaceX team said that is not a recommended use, and that the “dish is not designed for tropical storms, tornadoes, etc.”

One Reddit user who lives in Canada asked if the dish will work in temperatures as low as 45° below zero Celsius (that’s 49° below in Fahrenheit). Starlink engineers responded that the dish is certified to operate from 30° below zero to 40° above zero on the Celsius scale (that’s 22° below zero up to 104°F). SpaceX has performed “testing down to these cold temperatures with no issues.”

Starlink satellite dishes “have self-heating capabilities to deal with a variety of weather conditions,” the team also said. In the coming weeks and months, they plan to deploy software updates that will “upgrade our snow melting ability.”

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OneWeb emerges from bankruptcy, plans global satellite broadband by 2022

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Enlarge / Illustration of a OneWeb satellite.

OneWeb has emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy under new ownership and says it will begin launching more broadband satellites next month. Similar to SpaceX Starlink, OneWeb is building a network of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that can provide high-speed broadband with much lower latencies than traditional geostationary satellites.

After a launch in December, “launches will continue throughout 2021 and 2022 and OneWeb is now on track to begin commercial connectivity services to the UK and the Arctic region in late 2021 and will expand to delivering global services in 2022,” OneWeb said in an announcement Friday.

In March this year, OneWeb filed for bankruptcy and reportedly laid off most of its staff. In July, OneWeb agreed to sell the business to a consortium including the UK government and Bharti Global Limited for $1 billion. In the Friday announcement, OneWeb said it has secured “all relevant regulatory approvals” needed to exit bankruptcy.

“Together with our UK Government partner, we recognised that OneWeb has valuable global spectrum with priority rights, and we benefit from $3.3 billion invested to date and from the satellites already in orbit, securing our usage rights,” Bharti founder and Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal said.

Launch scheduled for December 17

OneWeb previously launched 74 satellites into low-Earth orbits and said it plans a launch of 36 more satellites on December 17, 2020. The Friday announcement also said OneWeb plans “a constellation of 650 LEO satellites,” but that could be just the beginning. OneWeb in August secured US approval for 1,280 satellites in medium-Earth orbits, bringing its total authorization to 2,000 satellites.

OneWeb will be playing catchup against SpaceX, which has launched about 800 satellites, has permission to launch nearly 12,000, and is already providing Internet service to US customers in a beta. SpaceX and OneWeb are both seeking US permission to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites.

There’s also competition from Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which has US approval to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites and a $10 billion investment plan.

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Comcast to enforce 1.2TB data cap in entire 39-state territory in early 2021

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Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Comcast’s 1.2TB monthly data cap is coming to 12 more states and the District of Columbia starting January 2021. The unpopular policy was already enforced in most of Comcast’s 39-state US territory over the past few years, and the upcoming expansion will for the first time bring the cap to every market in Comcast’s territory.

Comcast will be providing some “courtesy months” in which newly capped customers can exceed 1.2TB without penalty, so the first overage charges for these customers will be assessed for data usage in the April 2021 billing period.

Comcast’s data cap has been imposed since 2016 in 27 of the 39 states in Comcast’s cable territory. The cap-less parts of Comcast’s network include Northeastern states where the cable company faces competition from Verizon’s un-capped FiOS fiber-to-the-home broadband service.

But last week, an update to Comcast’s website said that the cap is coming to Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The cap is also coming to parts of Virginia and Ohio where it wasn’t already implemented. In all, Comcast has nearly 28 million residential Internet customers.

We viewed the updated language on Comcast’s website Friday. Comcast appears to have taken the update off that webpage, but a Comcast spokesperson confirmed to Ars today that the data cap is going nationwide in January 2021 and said that notifications are being sent to customers in their bills. The updated language from the Comcast website was also preserved in a news article by Stop the Cap today.

Courtesy months for newly capped users

Comcast’s update said customers in newly capped markets “can take the months of January and February to understand how the new 1.2TB Internet Data Plan affects them without additional charges. We’ll credit your bill for any additional data usage charges over 1.2TB during those months if you’re not on an unlimited data plan.”

That would delay enforcement until March, but Comcast also provides all customers with one courtesy month in each 12-month period. Newly capped customers could thus start getting overage charges for their April 2021 usage.

“Comcast is certain to be criticized for expanding data caps in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as the number of cases explodes in the United States, pushing more people than ever to work from home,” Stop the Cap wrote.

The data-cap expansion will likely result in more disputes between Comcast and customers. Comcast has always said its data meter is accurate but has had to correct occasional mistakes. Customers who suddenly face overage fees often suspect the meter is wrong. Comcast provides no way for customers to independently verify the meter readings, and there’s no government regulation of broadband-data meters to ensure their accuracy.

Unlimited data options

Comcast’s overage charges are $10 for each additional block of 50GB, up to a maximum of $100 each month. Customers can avoid overage charges by spending an extra $30 a month on unlimited data or $25 for the “xFi Complete” plan that includes unlimited data and the rental cost for Comcast’s xFi gateway modem and router.

Comcast is trying to give customers in newly capped markets an incentive to upgrade to unlimited data before the caps actually go into effect. It’s a bit convoluted: customers who sign up for unlimited data in December or January will have the $30 unlimited-data charge waived until June, the Comcast spokesperson told Ars. People who sign up for unlimited data in February or March would be charged the extra $30 fee starting in April.

Comcast is doing something similar with the $25 xFi Complete add-on, which essentially combines two charges into one—a $14-per-month charge for Comcast’s gateway and another $11 to get unlimited data. Customers who upgrade to the unlimited-data version of xFi Complete in December or January will not be charged the extra $11 until June, the spokesperson said. Customers who sign up later will pay the charge starting in April.

Comcast says cap is for “super users”

The Comcast spokesperson defended the data-cap expansion, saying that “a very small number of customers drive a disproportionately large volume of traffic,” as “5 percent of residential customers make up more than 20 percent of our network usage.”

About 95 percent of Comcast residential customers use less than 1.2TB a month, with the median customer at 308GB, the spokesperson said. The cap is “for those super users, a very small subset of our customers,” and “for those super users we have unlimited options,” the spokesperson said.

But Comcast customers would likely use more data if they didn’t face caps. New research by OpenVault, a vendor that sells data-usage tracking platform to ISPs, found that 9.4 percent of US customers with unlimited data plans exceeded 1TB a month and that 1.2 percent exceeded 2TB in Q3 2020. For customers with data caps, 8.3 percent exceeded 1TB and 0.9 percent exceeded 2TB.

Comcast did not provide a clear answer as to why the company decided that now is the right time to expand the data cap to more states. The spokesperson said Comcast has spent $12 billion to expand its network since 2017 and that increasing capacity helped the network perform well even as the COVID pandemic caused big increases in residential broadband usage. But Comcast reduced capital spending on its cable division in 2019 and reduced cable-division capital spending again in the first nine months of 2020.

Data caps generate revenue for ISPs

It’s been clear for years that Comcast’s data caps are a revenue-generating system rather than a congestion management tool. When Comcast was enforcing a 300GB monthly cap in 2015, a Comcast engineering executive said imposing the monthly data limit was a business decision, not one driven by technical necessity.

Monthly data caps are not useful for managing congestion in real time, since they apply only to a customer’s monthly total rather than actually addressing the impact heavy users might have on other customers at peak usage times. Comcast used to use a congestion-management system to slow down the heaviest Internet users, but turned the system off a few years ago, saying its network was strong enough that it was no longer needed.

Comcast began imposing the data cap and overage charges in some states in 2012. The cap was originally 300GB and was raised to 1TB in 2016.

Comcast waived the data cap for a few months during the pandemic, then raised it from 1TB to 1.2TB when it was reimposed in July. Despite the temporary data-cap waiver, Comcast boasted that its network was able to handle the pandemic-fueled usage.

One small ISP in Maryland, Antietam Broadband, decided to permanently remove data caps after finding that increased usage during the pandemic didn’t harm the network. Antietam also said that customers working at home switched to “broadband packages that more accurately reflected their broadband needs.” As Antietam’s experience shows, heavy Internet users often pay for faster speeds, ensuring that ISPs get more revenue from heavy users even when there’s no data cap.

As Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told Ars earlier this year, the pandemic showed that data caps aren’t necessary to manage network traffic. “Data caps have always been about socking consumers with extra fees to pad Big Cable’s profit margins,” Wyden said at the time. “Even after the COVID-19 emergency passes, ISPs should do away with unnecessary data caps.”

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