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Cable-company criticized for asking customers to pay more during public-health emergency, when high-speed internet is critical to students, some employees

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By Tom Johnson

Comcast is postponing until July its plan to impose new fees on customers who are heavy users of its internet services after widespread criticism for proposing to increase bills during a public-health emergency.

The postponement came after pressure from lawmakers and consumer advocates. They argued such a step was inappropriate at a time when many students and others are relying heavily on the internet because of the coronavirus pandemic. The cap on data use was effective Jan. 1 for Comcast customers in the Northeast region, including New Jersey,

In New Jersey, lawmakers have introduced legislation (S-3410) that would prevent internet service providers from increasing rates during a public-health emergency. In Pennsylvania, the state’s attorney general’s office secured a commitment last week from Comcast, a Philadelphia-based cable company, to delay imposing the new fees on data usage to current customers there and throughout the Northeast.

The plan calls for a monthly data-usage cap of 1.2 terabytes. If customers exceed the data limit, they could be charged anywhere from $10 to $100 on top of their existing bills, depending on their data usage. Comcast began monitoring customers’ data usage at the beginning of the year, but had held off imposing the fees until March.

‘Unconscionable’ to levy an extra fee

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unconscionable for a cable company to levy an extra fee for using their internet,’’ said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the sponsor of the bill in the New Jersey Legislature. “Right now people are relying on their home internet more than ever — for work, for their children to attend school, to shop for groceries and to schedule COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.’’

The legislation, introduced a week ago, has not yet moved in either house of the Legislature.

In a news release, Comcast said it is delaying imposition of the new fees for six months to provide its customers in the Northeast time to familiarize themselves with the data-usage plan and their service options.

The company said the new limit on data usage only affects a “very small percentage of its customers.’’ Comcast is also giving its low-income customers some help by doubling the speed for those who subscribe to its Internet Essentials service and not imposing data limits on that plan for the rest of the year. In addition, the company is waiving early termination fees for customers who do not want to be subject to caps on data usage.

In New Jersey, the state Board of Public Utilities has received some complaints from customers about the new fee but is unable to take action because it does not regulate internet service, according to Peter Peretzman, a spokesman for the agency. There are no plans to investigate the problem, he added.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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