BOSTON — Two Democratic lawmakers want to prohibit internet service providers from capping customers' data use as part of a proposal giving the state authority to regulate the industry.
The plan, filed by state Reps. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill and David Rogers, D-Cambridge, would ban broadband providers operating in Massachusetts from limiting the amount of data used by customers or shutting them off for excessive use. The plan would also repeal a law that prevents the state from regulating internet providers.
"There shouldn't be data caps or shut-offs to the internet," Vargas said. "We don't allow utilities to shut off people during the pandemic, so why would we allow it for something as essential as the internet?"
Vargas' proposal is designed to protect residents as many people work remotely and many students study from home during the health crisis.
Unlike natural gas and electric companies, internet providers aren't regulated by the state, Vargas said, and are generally "allowed to set their own rates."
"The majority of people in the state only have one internet service provider, so most people don't have a choice," he said. "There's no competition."
Internet providers are currently regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and operate locally under franchise agreements with cities and towns.
Some states, like Maine and Vermont, have passed "net neutrality laws" that give them authority over internet provider practices within their jurisdictions.
Vargas' proposal would make Massachusetts one — if not the only — state with regulatory authority over internet providers. If the plan is approved, the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable would set the regulations.
Industry officials say the proposed changes are unnecessary and might run afoul of FCC regulations.
Tim Wilkerson, president and CEO of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association which represents Comcast and other internet providers, called the proposal a "solution in search of a problem."
"Since the very beginning of the pandemic, our member companies in Massachusetts have worked continually to support customers, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their networks to provide ongoing reliability and innovation, helping low-income individuals access fast and reliable internet, opening up thousands of free Wi-Fi hotspots and much more," he said.
The proposal is emerging amid rancor over Comcast's plans to impose a new 1.2 terabyte monthly "data cap" in Massachusetts and other Northeastern states for customers who use the Pennsylvania-based company's Xfinity service.
Under the changes, Comcast customers who go above the data limit for its 1.2 terabyte internet service will have to pay $10 for each additional 50 gigabytes used. But the company points out that surcharges would be capped at $100 extra per month, and it also offers unlimited internet plans for customers who need more data.
Comcast began informing customers about the changes over the past few months and notified those who were exceeding the cap, giving them a two-month grace period to adjust their internet use.
But the company's decision to implement the changes amid the pandemic sparked outrage from elected officials who were bombarded with calls from angry constituents.
A group of more than 70 lawmakers wrote to Comcast in December, urging the company to scrap its plan and reconsider "any future attempts at imposing a data cap or any perversion of the principles of net neutrality in Massachusetts."
"It is inconceivable that Comcast would choose to impose this 'cap and fee' plan during a pandemic, when many Massachusetts residents are forced to work and attend school from home via the internet," lawmakers wrote.
Vargas said the company refused to scrap the changes, so lawmakers responded with a bill that would prevent internet providers from capping data usage during the state of emergency. Comcast recently said it will delay data cap overage fees until August, but on Friday a company spokesperson said that date has now been pushed back to 2022.
Still, Vargas said lawmakers see a need to protect consumers by letting the state regulate the multibillion-dollar industry as it does utilities.
"The internet is an essential service just like water and electricity," he said. "We need to make sure we provide the same kind of protections for consumers."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org