Some ISPs want to meter and charge for Internet usage over a specified bandwidth quantity. Should they enact such a policy?
It's all about money and draining the public of personal funds in a time of economic crisis when other basics are increasing as well. I think it will happen and dread the day when it does.
Here are three articles from The New York Times...
"Putting a Meter on the Computer for Internet Use"
September 18th, 2008
The New York Times
September 18th, 2008
The New York Times
WHEN Richard Tallent moved to a new home in Beaumont, Tex., he was eager to sign up for Internet service as soon as possible. Time Warner Cable, the local provider, was preparing to impose limits on its new customers’ Internet use.
Mr. Tallent, a programmer and photographer who frequently uploads large photographs, slipped in two days before the deadline. If he hadn't, he would have had to pay $1 for every gigabyte he used over the limit. Time Warner offers plans with limits between 5 gigabytes and 40 gigabytes, amounts a spokesman estimated would cover 95 percent of their customers.
What Time Warner is experimenting with in Beaumont may very well be the way phone companies and cable companies sell Internet service in the future.
The company says it is not fair for average users to subsidize heavy users. The Federal Communications Commission recently voted to forbid Comcast to slow the service of its most voracious customers. (Comcast recently filed a lawsuit to reverse the F.C.C.'s judgment). Time Warner is testing another method to throttle the once-unlimited use of the Internet.
Customers are reacting like patients whose doctor has put them on a strict diet. Some are looking for tools to restrain their Internet use; others are hoping to find another doctor with a more liberal attitude toward vanilla Swiss almond ice cream and prime rib.
Some Internet service providers say they want to end their all-you-can-eat plans because a few customers with immense appetites for Web content are overwhelming the networks and slowing the delivery of news and entertainment for everyone else. Other providers blame pirates, who program their computers to crawl the Internet and suck down complete copies of CDs or DVDs.
A few companies say that Internet networks are being clogged by legitimate video services like YouTube.com, Hulu.com and Apple's iTunes, which use more bandwidth than the illicit file traders. Video files are singled out because they are typically thousands of times larger than text files. A minute of high-definition video is about 50 megabytes, about 10,000 times larger than an 800-word e-mail message.
Heavy users of the Internet often resent being caricatured as slack-jawed couch potatoes stealing movies. They present themselves as Internet pioneers exploring the best new ways to watch video, telecommute or create remote backups of their data. Some say that citizens in some other countries routinely get much faster, unlimited service for lower prices. Alex Dudley, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable, says that most customers in the Beaumont experiment will not pay much more than they did under the old plan. But it is too early to draw any conclusions about usage patterns or retention rates, he said, adding, "We have not seen an impact on sales in Beaumont."
There are a number of useful tools anyone can use to track their consumption. BWMeter ($30 from desksoft.com) is useful for both diagnosing network problems and measuring consumption. It comes with an alarm that will sound when a limit is reached. Other metering tools include DU Meter (dumeter.com) for $25 and BitMeter II (codebox.no-ip.net) free.
Owners of Apple computers might first try the Activity Monitor, a rudimentary tool that is part of the operating system. It tracks C.P.U. usage, memory consumption and network traffic. A more full-featured tool called Net Monitor is available from Guy Meyer, a software developer, for $12 at homepage.mac.com/rominar/net.html.
Other tools offer more precision. The Firebug plug-in for the Firefox browser is normally used by programmers to diagnose problems with Web sites. It offers detailed measurements of all Web connections. It is available free at getfirebug.com.
The accuracy of these tools is limited because the Internet was not initially intended to be metered. Alex Harper, the creator of MenuMeters, a tool from Raging Menace software (free at ragingmenace.com, though donations are requested), says that he has deliberately avoided tackling the problem of calculating the total amount of data consumed each month. His tool offers a working estimate of the data flowing in and out of a computer.
But it won't be perfect. Home networks are configured in a variety of ways, and the traffic in and out of a home uses different technical specifications, making truly accurate measurements difficult, he said.
Data flowing through virtual private networks used to connect people who are working remotely to the office are not easy to measure exactly either. Mr. Harper said that a better location to count the packets of data was at the D.S.L. or cable modem itself or the router attached to it. All of the information entering a house flows through these boxes, making them ideal spots for measuring the data flow.
Many high-end routers and others with custom programming offer a measuring feature, but most cheaper versions aimed at home customers don't have it. Several open-source projects, like the OpenWrt (openwrt.org), provide a means for home users to get a measurement of traffic - if they aren’t afraid to reprogram their router.
Some customers facing limits on Internet use are looking for some other Internet service providers. Brett Glass, the founder and owner of Lariat, a small wireless I.S.P. serving Laramie, Wyo., said his customers would not like to be surprised by a giant monthly bill. He said that some of the more than 4,000 other I.S.P.’s like his throughout the country would compete with the big providers by marketing different plans to different types of consumers.
Lariat, for instance, sells what Mr. Glass calls business service, designed for heavy and continuous use. It has no prohibition on "peer-to-peer" software commonly used to download large files, which can hog bandwidth. He pointed to WISPdirectory.com as a good site for finding alternate I.S.P.'s.
Mr. Tallent, the photographer, says that his choices in Beaumont are slim. Time Warner is the only provider he has found that offers the speeds he needs to run his business. He says he is afraid that the new bandwidth limits, if they are applied to him, will make it too expensive to move photos.
Other applications might be hampered as well. Many antivirus software packages and operating systems, for example, check for security upgrades and download them automatically, which could lead to surprise bills.
Also, more people are backing up important documents, photos, music and videos on remote computers, a service called "cloud computing." Getting the documents into the cloud and back down on a PC might become expensive.
Mr. Tallent thought about that as he weathered Tropical Storm Edouard and Hurricane Ike, which struck the Texas coast near Beaumont. He evacuated when Ike was nearing, but he forgot the paper copy of his insurance policy.
Next time, he said, he'll keep a digital copy in the cloud, along with favorite pictures. "There are online backup services, so if a hurricane comes and wipes us out, you can download all of your family photos," he said.
"Comcast to Place a Cap on Internet Downloads"
August 30th, 2008
The New York Times
August 30th, 2008
The New York Times
Comcast, one of the country's largest Internet providers, said this week that it would place limits on customers' broadband usage.
Beginning Oct. 1, Comcast will put a 250 gigabyte-a-month cap on residential users. The limit will not affect most users, at least not in the short-term, but is certain to create tension as some technologies gain traction.
A Comcast spokeswoman, Jennifer Khoury, said 250 gigabytes was about 100 times the typical usage; the average customer uses two to three gigabytes a month. Less than 1 percent of customers exceed the cap, she said.
Many Internet providers reserve the right to cancel the service of the most excessive users. The 250-gigabyte cap is Comcast's way of specifying a longstanding policy of placing a limit on Internet consumption, and it comes after customer pushed for a definition of excessive use.
But on the Internet, consumer behavior does not stand still. As the technology company Cisco stated in a report last winter, "today's 'bandwidth hog' is tomorrow's average user."
Some commentators were quick to characterize Comcast's decision as having a chilling effect. Om Malik, the founder of the technology Web site GigaOm, called the cap "the end of the Internet as we know it."
DSLReports.com, a Web site about consumer broadband information, said it indicated "a significant shift in the U.S. broadband market that won't be reversible."
In recent months Comcast and other companies have considered clamping down on their most active subscribers, saying the limits were necessary to ensure fair access to the network for all.
Comcast's cap does not amount to Internet metering, the charging of different prices for different broadband speeds or usage, but the change to Comcast's policy does not rule out metering in the future.
In June, Time Warner Cable began a metering trial in one Texas city by offering various monthly plans and charging extra when consumers exceeded their bandwidth limit. AT&T has said that it is considering a similar pricing plan. The concept is not a foreign one; consumers already pay by usage for water and electricity. But broadband access has seemed unlimited, and any stifling of that is sure to concern some customers.
Until now, Comcast had not defined excessive use, but it had contacted customers who were using the heaviest amount of broadband and asked them to curb usage. Most do so willingly, the company said. The ones who do not curb their usage receive a second notice and risk having their accounts terminated.
Although the 250 gigabyte cap is now specified, users who exceed that amount will not have their access switched off immediately, nor will they be charged for excessive use. Instead, the customers may be contacted by Comcast and notified of the cap. The company did not say how 250 gigabytes was selected.
According to Comcast, a customer would have to download 62,500 songs or 125 standard-definition movies a month to exceed the caps. But high-definition video and video gaming require a higher amount of bandwidth. S. Derek Turner, the research director for the nonpartisan media policy group Free Press, said broadband caps could create a disincentive to view online video.
"As media companies put content online, consumers can bypass the cable companies and get their content directly from the Internet," Mr. Turner said. "A 250 gigabyte cap may seem very high - and it is for today's Internet use. But it's essentially the equivalent of four hours of HD television a day."
Critics have charged that Internet providers are trying to protect their cable TV and telephone businesses by stifling Internet access. Comcast says Fancast, its online video Web site, will count against the 250 gigabyte limit, but its digital voice service will not.
Comcast said there was no link between the caps, announced Thursday, and the Federal Communications Commission's finding on Aug. 1 that the company was improperly inhibiting customers who used BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing program.
But Andrew Jay Schwartzman, the president of the Media Access Project, said the caps appeared to be a direct result of that finding. Mr. Schwartzman’s group represented Free Press in its complaint against Comcast about the file-sharing controls.
"Time Warner Cable Profits Will Grow With Broadband Caps"
April 8th, 2009
The New York Times
April 8th, 2009
The New York Times
Resistance is growing to Time Warner Cable's plans to impose limits on how much its broadband customers can download. Consumers are not only complaining, but they are also organizing on Web sites like stopthecap.com. Politicians in Texas, North Carolina and New York have spoken out against the idea. And perhaps most surprisingly, some on Wall Street see the move as a hint that Time Warner may be under financial pressure.
Richard Greenfield, the analyst with Pali Capital, published a blog post Wednesday asking, "Is Broadband Becoming Less Profitable for Time Warner?” Mr. Greenfield said that the company is “making itself a spectacle.”
"The only reason you would want to create such a high-profile negative publicity event is that broadband is becoming less profitable."
I ran this idea past Landel C. Hobbs, the chief operating officer of Time Warner Cable. Mr. Hobbs has become the leader of the company's campaign to justify its pricing moves.
Mr. Hobbs tried to strike a balance, saying that while the company is concerned about the cost to maintain its broadband network, investors should not be worried. He said it was "absolutely not" true that Time Warner's profits were being squeezed by the cost of heavy broadband users.
"If you are getting feedback that there is an immediate problem, nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
Time Warner, he said, is concerned about the rise of file trading and video streaming that is raising Internet use by a growing minority of its broadband users.
"We are looking at long-term usage patterns," he said. "We've got these heavy users, and their usage continues to grow at an exponential rate." Rising use, in turn, requires the company to continue to invest to expand its capacity.
His argument is that the heavy users should pay more of the cost of those upgrades than those who use the Internet simply for e-mail and the occasional online book purchase.
"We are trying to be fair on all ends," Mr. Hobbs said. "For those who want to use a tremendous amount of bandwidth, there should be a charge, because that costs money."
I tried to explore the marginal costs with Mr. Hobbs. When someone decides to spend a day doing nothing but downloading every Jerry Lewis movie from BitTorrent, Time Warner doesn’t have to write a bigger check to anyone. Rather, as best as I can figure it, the costs are all about building the network equipment and buying long-haul bandwidth for peak capacity.
If that is true, the question of what is "fair" is somewhat more abstract than just saying someone who uses more should pay more. After all, people who watch more hours of cable television don't pay more than those who don't.
Mr. Hobbs declined to react to my hypothesis about how costs are almost all fixed costs. He did invite me to meet with an engineer to go over the details, an offer I want to take him up on.
Mr. Hobbs said that Time Warner hoped to introduce plans that cost less than its current broadband offerings, which start at about $25 a month.
Earlier this year, Time Warner started testing a menu of four price tiers, with caps ranging from 5 to 40 gigabytes, in Beaumont, Tex. It now plans to run similar tests in four more markets: Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Rochester, and Greensboro, N.C.
While many Internet providers in Canada and Europe impose price plans with caps on use, most service in the United States has been unlimited. Comcast recently imposed a cap of 250 gigabytes on all users, far higher that the levels chosen by Time Warner.
In a post on the Internet, Mr. Hobbs wrote that in response to complaints by customers who want to use more than 40 gigabytes, the company would also develop a "super tier" with a 100-megabyte cap.
I asked Mr. Hobbs what the financial effect of all these choices would be on the company, which tends, like many telecommunications firms, to look carefully at average revenue per user, or A.R.P.U.
"A.R.P.U. continues to grow," he said. "Broadband data is such a great product. I think there will be some customers who don't use much that will select the lower tier. But over time, they will use more and move up to the higher price plans."