Clearing the Backup on the Information Superhighway

If you’re reading this, you have internet access. Chances are that you are paying an ISP for access to the internet (that or you are abusing your employer’s connection with personal business and shame on you for that). Internet usage has increased exponentially over the past decade as more and more people get online, many from multiple computers in the same home. Network usage has grown and is causing some congestion that forces companies to look hard at how to manage network traffic on their systems.

ATT reports that iPhone users download 20-30 percent more than other smart phone users. Sprint has put a maximum download limit of 5 Gigabytes in place and Comcast instigated a 250 Gigabyte cap. This brings up questions about bandwidth consumption with regard to ISP charges per usage. Providers are looking at trying to figure out how to generate revenue for access to the backbone pipes on a per user basis. What does this mean for you and me? It means that some people who download huge amounts of data—videos, disk images, programs, music etc.—will either dictate the price that everyone pays, or force the ISPs to alter their billing practice to a per-byte fee.

Now, this data load is not only individual users. ATT, Verizon and Comcast (and many others) are all sending huge amounts of data over their backbones with their digital video services. The demand for high definition content is growing faster than content providers can produce it. In fact, many shows that we watch on “HD” channels are not true high definition. It is merely the same SD feed up-converted to 720p resolution and sent out on an HD channel. In doing that, it takes more than three times the bandwidth to transmit as the SD feed. The network has to be upgraded to support these digital streams and the cost for that improvement has to be born somewhere.

For the video services, it is built into the fees you pay your provider. For the internet, however, they calculate it differently. In order to provide that 6-20 megabit-per-second connection speed, the network has to be managed. Those in support of net neutrality would assert that there should be no oversight of network traffic, that any and everyone should have the same access to the download pipe as anyone else. After all, they pay the same price. While this is a logical point, it is important to realize that some people use more than 1000 times the bandwidth of others. A sparse few people are causing some serious network congestion and forcing the providers to upgrade the equipment and infrastructure to ensure that the service levels across the board remain high. This costs money, which could cause increases in monthly subscription fees.

What we are left with are two options: increase monthly charges across the board, or implement a per byte charge system where your usage determines your bill. This harkens back to the old access structure where providers monitored your online time and charged a per-minute fee. I remember one time paying 80 bucks for 24k dialup to my provider. I was overjoyed when they went to 24/7 unlimited access. To be honest, I prefer unlimited access. I do not want my data usage monitored for billing purposes. I like knowing it is there if I need it, even if I don’t use it. It also makes budgeting easier.

Per-usage billing means the more you use it, the more you pay and makes sense from a business perspective. Those few who use 1000 times more than average will have a significantly higher bill than the rest—and that seems fair. It seems fair on the surface that those iPhone users who download more should have to pay more. It seems fair…but is it?

Cell phone companies used to charge per minute fees for all calls, but consumers forced them to unlimited plans. People want the ability to use their phone as often as they need to without worrying about a huge bill. The same is true for the internet. Access is what you pay for; the pipeline is just the way content is delivered.

Imagine if all roads in this country were toll roads. You would have to pay to go to work to earn the money to pay to go to work. Charging per byte fees to use the internet is like paying a toll to drive. You already pay taxes for your license and registration; shouldn’t that enable you to drive as much as you want? Shouldn’t your ISP fees enable you to surf as much as you want too?

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