trends

Metered Internet Usage and Net Neutrality

Bob Preston
Internet Service Providers may want to charge more money for more Internet use, but it's doubtful that the public will go for it.

Over the last year, the idea of metered Internet access has gained steam, with Time Warner Cable leading the charge to test it. In Time Warner's case, the guinea pig is the city of Beaumont, Texas. In early June, the ISP started offering Internet plans to consumers that would let them download and transfer anywhere from 5 GB to 40 GB of data. Anything over that would cost $1 per GB.

Why all these limits and fees? Companies that support metered Internet usage argue that heavy Internet users are ruining everyone else's fun. These heavy users include everyone from BitTorrent fans who download dozens of movies and TV episodes every day to YouTube enthusiasts who eat up a lot of bandwidth while surfing.

And Time Warner isn't the only one. In August, Comcast put an overall 250 GB cap on all Internet usage. Customers who exceed this limit will hear from Comcast. Typically, Comcast said they ask customers to curb their Internet usage.

Comcast had originally opted for a more Draconian approach to dealing with heavy Internet users. Not long before the company enacted its 250 GB cap, it had tried to simply slow down the connection speeds of its busiest customers, only too have the FCC step in and block the action.

The reaction to Internet metering among adult industry professionals has been mixed. Online guru Brandon "Fight the Patent" Shalton told XBIZ that he supports such measures because they'd help curb "bandwidth leeches."

"It was Bill Gates that said back in 1981 that 640k was enough for anyone to run their computer," Shalton said. "You would think 250GB was enough; but as people are viewing Netflix movies over the Internet and downloading independent films, etc., — all of which is legal content — then the usual could go up. It's all economics: If you use a lot, you should be paying more. Most consumers who do download large files like movies from the Internet probably won't run up against the 250GB limit."

But NichePay's Media told XBIZ that he would be in danger of hitting a 250GB ceiling because he does so much work from his home office.

"I think its one of the stupidest moves that a cable company can make," he said. "To deny your customers true unlimited downloads when their service is already capped at a download speed without a throttle. If you want to stop people from downloading so much then don't allow the high megabit per second accounts they give to people. It makes it redundant sort of. They're basically controlling the way a surfer surfs. They want to offer all these bells and whistles to people, yet keep them on a leash. 'You can have blazing fast Internet as long as you don't download a lot of content.'"

Indeed, some online analysts argue that a measure like metered Internet usage is part of larger fight involving Net neutrality and that a metered Internet is just one of many surreptitious beachheads being established against it. The argument goes like this: By simply imposing rules on Internet usage, ISPs are softening up consumers for more dramatic Internet regulation in the future.

Tech writer Rob Beschizza of BoingBoing.net noted this possibility, citing the complicated legalese used by Time Warner to describe its metered Internet rules.

"Consumer activists want bandwidth treated like a utility, so metering it aligns well with a quid-pro-quo that networks might try to present: 'You get some kind of net neutrality, but you pay for every single byte of it you get,'" Beschizza said.

Metered Internet usage could weaken Net neutrality in other ways, too. One possible scenario works like this:

Tech writer Steve Spalding of HowToSplitAnAtom.com doesn't oppose metered Internet usage, but he doesn't think it's a viable idea because if people are getting charged for every byte they download, they won't waste any of those bytes on advertising.

"Companies that serve rich media advertising will fight tooth and nail to keep people watching as much advertising as they can serve," Spalding said. "The best way to do that is to make sure that everyone has all the bandwidth that they can handle."

With that idea in mind, another tech analyst suggested that consumer resistance to advertising would give content providers an incentive to deliver ads to average surfers by defraying the cost of their metered bandwidth.

"What's a content provider to do?" wrote MattS of RichVsReach.com. "Pay for the delivery. Let the consumer know that the shows we deliver don't count against your minutes. It's free shipping. Just like Amazon makes a deal with FedEx, ESPN makes a deal with Time-Warner."

If Net neutrality fails, the nightmare scenario would be a "tiered" Internet, where consumers would pay different rates to get access to different regions of the Internet. Larger websites would be cheaper to access, while smaller websites would be more expensive to access.

Conversely, that same tiered scenario could come about if ISPs were to charge individual websites more money to be a part of a "fast lane" that would reach consumers faster.

Shalton said that while he supports a tiered payment system for consumers — if you're a "bandwidth hog," you should pay more money — he supports Net neutrality.

"A blog that happens to be popular and gets a lot of visitors would have to pay money under what the Comcasts of the world want to charge," he said. "And as a business, that website may not be making enough to handle the bandwidth bills they already pay for stuff coming off of their server, in addition to a 'fast lane' charge."

In this year's presidential race, the candidates have clear positions on Net neutrality. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain calls net neutrality "prescriptive regulation" in saying he does not believe in it. Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama "strongly supports the principle of network neutrality" and opposes a "two-tier Internet in which websites with the best relationships with network providers can get the fastest access to consumers, while all competing websites remain in a slower lane."

But despite the best efforts of companies like Google, which supports Net neutrality, Jonathan Weber of the UK's Times Online suggests its day might be numbered.

"As an Internet entrepreneur, this last issue is the most critical for me," Weber said. "In theory, Google and the other big Internet companies are standing up to the phone companies on my behalf in the Net neutrality debate. But when push comes to shove, I think the big boys will be happy to cut their own deals with the providers of Internet connectivity if they think it's in their interests."

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