I’ve mentioned this in a few blog posts in the past, and news about this issue has definitely made it to the DFE news ticker. I’ve also written at length about Net Neutrality, a hand-in-hand issue with this, on both this site and at the request of Phillip on TAP. But it now looks as though the eagle has landed in Texas. Get ready for the metered Internet, where your web usage is measured and charged for just like your cell phone:
On Thursday, new Time Warner Cable Internet subscribers in Beaumont, Texas, will have monthly allowances for the amount of data they upload and download. Those who go over will be charged $1 per gigabyte, a Time Warner Cable executive told the Associated Press.
Time Warner joins many other major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in their complaint that bandwidth-hogging users and sites are driving most of the bandwidth usage. They declare their new metering system as a fair way to drive the billing to compensate:
“We think it’s the fairest way to finance the needed investment in the infrastructure,” Leddy said.
But ignoring the issue of fairness for this one article, moving to a metered system of billing for Internet usage fundamentally changes the relationship between the ISP and the user in ways that create troublesome new issues that I do wonder if they’ve given full thought to. The current monthly charge model is a bit like renting an apartment: you pay to live there, however much or little you use the property does not matter. A metered system is more equivalent to your RG&E – or as they say in the article, like your cell phone – inasmuch as you are actually paying for a commodity. Commoditizing bandwidth, or the amount of data you’re able to download in a given month, changes expectations quite a bit.
When you use a cell phone, the phone comes with caller ID as part of the service. This enables you to make an intelligent, deliberate choice of when to answer the phone and when to use your minutes. There is a law on the books that prevents cold-calling marketers from using cell phone numbers. When you call or receive calls from your cellular provider, you do not get charged. In short, the amount you use your phone – and therefore the cellular bandwidth commodity you’re purchasing from your provider – is very much controlled by your own choices.
But on the Internet, it’s more complicated. Yes, you get to decide what websites you visit and what websites you don’t. But the website owner gets to decide who advertises and how, from large image banners to full-animation Flash banners. The metered Internet means that every visitor to the site is actually paying to be advertised too.
Do the ISPs expect to reimburse users for these advertisements? What about pop-ups? Do they plan to provide some way of knowing just how much data a given website will require a user to download, so that users can make informed decisions about where to surf? There is also the issue of viruses, spyware, Microsoft’s “helpful” updating services and other bandwidth-sucking programs that will deplete the reserve of the commodity you’ve paid for.
There will be those who say, “but you’ve got gigabytes of bandwidth per month! You’ll never go over that just because of advertisements.” Certainly, in most cases those people are right. But whether or not you go over your allotted bandwidth is irrelevant to the fact that you are now paying for a commodity and have a reasonable expectation that this commodity cannot be abused against your will.
Secondly, there is the issue of quality. When you pay to have a service which you can use whenever and however you want, there is an expectation that outages will occur, that maintenance must be performed, that there are in fact people using way more bandwidth than you today and the connection might be a bit slower. All of that flies right out the window the minute you consider each and every kilobyte of data to be a commodity you’re paying for. Especially since you’ve paid for x-number of gigabytes per month in advance.
If you’ve paid for them, you have a reasonable expectation that they be available immediately. And what’s more, there should be no reason to expect slow page loads as a matter of course. There is also a certain liability for network viruses and other pests that lurk within the system. If they infect your system and then “phone home,” you’re paying to have a virus. Something you got from an email is your fault, but something lurking in the system (like, say the old MyDoom virus and others) is their responsibility.
And speaking of email, who gets to pay for all that spam you keep getting? Yes, those are downloads, too. While you may not know it, all that mail is going in and out of your ISP’s mail servers before it gets to you. Why should you pay for spam when they could be filtering it on the mail servers? Or even all that crap you get from your Aunt Helga?
Finally for this discussion and potentially most important, consider the education factor: there is a vast sea of under-educated users out there that make up the majority of the ISP’s clientèle. Or to be more charitable, there is a vast sea of computer knowledge into which most people barely wade, but all of which bares on the decisions they make while surfing. Lacking knowledge, many users do things on the Internet which have consequences they don’t often know about. You may scoff at these people and say they need to educate themselves, but when the ISP they use switches to metering such arcane computer concepts as “bandwidth” and “gigabytes?”. That constitutes either an unfair prejudice against the computer neophyte or an expectation that the ISP will provide some sort of training that will educate their users.
All of these are potential pitfalls and highly-likely lawsuits borne out of this need to grab more cash and do an end-run around the two-tier system and the Net Neutrality proponents that stand in strong opposition. Really, did they think this through all the way? Was pissing on their customers really the only way?