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Metered Internet, Another Domino Falls: AT&T

Of the companies who have long declared a tiered Internet the only just system for the Big Telcos, AT&T has been on the forefront for a long time, now. Back when Net Neutrality was a big buzz word in Washington, it was quotes from AT&T executives that really got the dander of the Save the Internet crowd up. Now that broadband companies have found a back-door route into the tiered Internet world (because, do not let them fool you: Tiered Internet and Metered Internet are functionally the same thing), it’s no surprise that the AT&T Broadband folks are looking into making the same switch:

AT&T Considering Metered Broadband – GigaOM

Bend Broadband, Comcast, Time Warner Cable — they’re all considering or going the route of the tiered (aka metered) broadband. Now add AT&T to that list, according to a report in CED magazine.

Let me just state once again the point that I think is the most relevant, here: there is a fundamental type of discrimination inherent in this system which measures total download capacity, a concept completely foreign to most Internet users.

And just as an antidote to this new system, what if there was a site that would allow you to completely use up any extra bandwidth at the end of the month, just so you’ve gotten what you paid for? Imagine the load on the network if people just started downloading text files at 10gb at the end of the month – not because the files themselves are of any value, but just so they can get the full use of their Internet connection?

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The Metered Internet: Where Has all the Bandwidth Gone?

. . . Long time passing.

A basic premise of the metered Internet plans Time Warner and other ISPs are cooking up is that there is simply too much bandwidth being used up by too few people. You know, the YouTube users and the downloaders. In order to be able to maintain – and presumably enhance – the network to accommodate such over usage, someone needs to pay for all that loss of bandwidth. As much as I vehemently disagree with the plan on a number of levels, I did at first take this root concept somewhat at face value.

But then, on my ride into work this morning, I happened to catch another one of those annoying Time Warner commercials for their “All in One Package” and it suddenly dawned on me: hey! Isn’t broadband phone service (VoIP to it’s friends) kind of a heavy-bandwidth activity? And aren’t people paying Time Warner extra money for use of said service?

Why, yes. Yes they are. And having now encumbered a fair amount of the overall network bandwidth with phone calls, Time Warner would like to charge Internet users extra to do what they were encouraged to do when Broadband Internet was a new and expensive novelty. I’d say that’s fairly close to “double-dipping.”

Does that sound fair to you?

Late Update: Ok, just for the sake of measurement, I checked the total download size of this video on YouTube.  It’s 13 delicious megabytes of the best comedy on television, and it’s five minutes long.  Longer videos are obviously bigger files.  Just for the sense of scale for those of you not as familiar with Ye Olde Internet Page of Weights and Measurements, if you watched this video 65 times a day – without doing a single other thing on the Internet, at all – you would fill up your 25 gig allotment for the month.  I’m not saying that’s a little, I’m not saying it’s a lot. I’m saying it’s a fact.

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The Metered Internet: Have They Considered the Consequences?

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:

Time Warner Cable tries metering Internet use: Financial News – Yahoo! Finance

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:

T.W. Cont’d:

“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?