Amazon Fire TV bug provides another reason why data caps are anti-consumer

As Comcast sets itself up to merge with Time Warner Cable’s broadband subscribers, which could result in almost four out of five US broadband subscribers getting some kind of data cap, an Amazon Fire TV user just provided us with yet another reason why caps are so problematic for the average person.

As my colleague Mathew Ingram and at least one game developer have also discovered, broadband caps turn consumers into network cops forced to investigate how one of the many dozens of devices in their home might be behaving badly and causing a problem. And even if they can figure out the offending device, they may have little recourse when it comes to stopping the problem.

Earlier this month a freelance writer named Tyler Hayes noticed he had blown through his 250 gigabyte per month data cap by a lot; more than three times over. So he found what he thought was the culprit and then he went to tell the world via social media. Unlike many who flock to the internet to complain, Hayes was right: his Amazon Fire TV was the reason he had consumed 80 GB in one day. But he was wrong about exactly why it had happened.

Tyler Hayes documented the bandwidth increase caused by his Fire TV.

Tyler Hayes documented the bandwidth increase caused by his Fire TV.

Lucky for Hayes, Amazon is now aware of the problem. It has determined that the cause is not the ASAP recommendation and show caching service that Hayes thought and it is trying to fix the actual bug, which is in an opt-in screensaver function. Amazon offered the following statement when I asked about Hayes’ post:

We have confirmed this issue was not caused by ASAP. A big thanks to this customer for helping us find an edge case bug related to our screensaver. There is a small possibility if a customer uses the “mosaic” feature (not the default setting) on the screensaver images will not be cached. We’re working on a software update that will fix the bug, and in the meantime customers can turn off the mosaic view for the screensaver to avoid the issue. To date, we have not heard about this issue from other customers.

So those of you with a data cap might want to turn off the mosaic function in the screen saver and thank your lucky stars that Amazon cares enough about customer service to solve this issue before your ISP charges overage fees. And while Amazon is behaving correctly here, and while many ISPs offer both grace periods where they won’t charge for overages, as well as notifications as a consumer nears an overage, it still forces the consumer to figure out what went wrong.

Most notices from ISPs when a customer nears a data cap suggest that a teen might be streaming video or some neighbor is siphoning off your Wi-Fi. They don’t instruct users to think about whether they recently bought a new connected device in the last month that might have a software bug. And as more devices are connected, like locks, thermostats and even appliances, the opportunity that those devices might actually consume much more data than advertised rises.

When someone like Amazon is at fault, the consumer will likely be fine. But what happens when a Kickstarter beta or some connected gizmo with shoddy code is the culprit? Then will you be stuck hoping your ISP is in forgiving mood while having paid for a buggy device?

Thanks to our love of connected devices and the increasing prevalence of data cap, caveat emptor may apply in entirely new ways for consumers in the years ahead. If you want to know if you should worry, check our chart to see which ISPs are capping your connection.