23 Jun Broadband metering plans stir debate on future of the Internet
Milwaukee, Wis. – Internet meter reading, where heavy users of bandwidth pay more based on usage, may be coming to a provider near you, but the founding fathers of the Internet worry that Web-based innovation would be a casualty.
To hear broadband providers explain it, the proliferation of video through sites like YouTube, plus the forthcoming explosion in entertainment programming that will be provided over the Internet, make paying more for heavy use a business necessity – even an inevitability.
But not everyone is convinced that more active broadband subscribers should pay more, or that so-called metered charging is a sure thing.
In this look at the prospects for a metered charging of broadband, WTN interviewed broadband providers and critics alike. For a historical perspective, we also talked to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Larry Landweber, who played a key role in developing the Internet as we know it.
The New York-based Time Warner, which provides cable service to much of metropolitan Milwaukee, began a trial of Internet metering in Beaumont, Texas earlier this month. According to the New York Times, customers have been asked to select a monthly plan and pay surcharges when they exceed their bandwidth limit.
The mechanics are similar to old phone plans that were based on volume, and plans with higher caps naturally come with faster service. Alex Dudley, a spokesman for Time Warner, confirmed that in the trial new customers may buy plans with a 5-gigabyte cap, a 20-gigabyte cap, or a 40-gigabyte cap – with prices ranging from $30 to $50. For anything above the cap, customers would pay $1 per gigabyte.
Dudley said the trial only started two weeks ago – too early to assess how it’s going – and would be evaluated on three fronts: technical, customer reaction, and effectiveness.
Commenting on the justification for such an approach, Dudley said it’s a simple matter of making the biggest users pay more.
“Less than five percent of our customers use upwards of 50 percent of our network capacity,” he said.
Drew Petersen, director of government and public relations for TDS Telecom, said TDS does not meter bandwidth but might look at it in the future.
He characterized metered broadband as an issue that has been highlighted by cable companies. “They’ve got a shared technology, so as more people come home at night and get on the network, they face more congestion problems than a traditional telecom provider like TDS faces because we have dedicated [DSL] lines,” Petersen said. “DSL is a dedicated connection point to the customer, whereas the cable modem product is more like a bus technology. When more people get on the bus at night, it tends to slow down their network, so they have been the first to go down the road of reviewing bandwidth metering issues.”
TDS is in the process of changing from a telecom company to a broadband company, Petersen said, and the company’s view is that it’s appropriate for customers to pay more if they use an exceptional amount of bandwidth. Its acceptable use policy states that if a consumer exceeds 50 gigabytes of bandwidth per month, TDS will contact the consumer to discuss his or her Internet habits.
Given the bandwidth consumed by one high-definition movie – at least four or five gigabytes for compressed high-definition through Apple TV, and upwards of 25 gigabytes for non-compressed movies – anyone downloading 50 movies in a month would exceed TDS’ acceptable use policy.
Less than five percent of TDS customers use that much bandwidth. “The average user is nowhere near that bandwidth capacity, and I think observers and consumers would suggest that if you’re consuming that much bandwidth, you should be expected to pay for that,” he said.
Larry Landweber, a John P. Morgridge professor emeritus in the Computer Sciences Department at UW-Madison, does not believe such a charging structure is as inevitable as death and taxes. He said the amount of available bandwidth has been growing very quickly on fiber cable, noting that providers have reached the point where they can go from 10 billion bits per second on a single wavelength to 40 billion bits per second and much more.
“They are talking about terabits per second on a single fiber, and fiber cables have multiple fibers,” Landweber explained. “So available bandwidth is still able to grow faster than demand, and I think at this moment it’s not inevitable that it [metered bandwidth] will happen in the next couple of years.”
Landweber shares the concern of Vint Cerf, an Internet evangelist for Google, who told the New York Times that innovation on new applications could be impacted if cost certainty is removed from the equation. Landweber and Cerf played key roles in the development of the Internet, and Landweber noted that one of the things that allowed the Internet to take off is that it wasn’t based on a charge per bit.
“What I wonder about is the impact on cutting off innovation,” Landweber said. “The reality is that people who use the higher levels of bandwidth are the people who are using the most modern of services.
“We’re moving to this converged world where we’ll be doing entertainment and communication and access information all over the same wire. There is going to be a big move toward video images – high-definition video images – and to start metering at this point will severely impact the adoption of two-way, high-definition video. Video conferencing, downloading of movies, sharing of videos – all of this is coming very rapidly.”
Landweber recalled a previous experience with metered charging. He said there were technologies, based on open systems interconnection (OSI), that were promoted by the telephone companies in the 1980s. At that point, telephone companies all over the world used a protocol that involved what Landweber called “a very telephone-centric notion” of billing per packet or byte, and those highly structured billing systems were one the reasons why the Internet became such an appealing data option.
In the early 1980s, he helped connect Rice University to CSNET, an early component of the Internet. At the time, Rice was using a public data network called Telenet, which was a commercial service provider that used metered charging, and the university’s monthly bill was a very cost prohibitive $10,000.
“We were putting the Internet on top of that, but their ability to use the Internet was very limited,” he recalled. “There is a lot of experience from 20 or 30 years ago with what happens when you actually meter.
“The other thing that’s interesting is there is a cost to metering, and so by introducing the ability to measure traveling data, you incur an additional cost which you then have to pass on to customers.”
Landweber sees another issue with metering – how are providers going to measure the data? “Am I going to pay for all of the millions of bytes of spam that I get? How are you going to measure that? They won’t be able to just measure what I send.”
Petersen, taking exception to Cerf’s warning, does not believe metering would stifle innovation. “Nobody wants to see broadband succeed more than companies like TDS,” he noted. “It is by no means our intent, nor will it be an outcome, that we would stifle innovation on the Internet. I think it’s a fundamentally flawed argument, and it’s made by a company (Google) that is fully reliant on having broadband consumers connected to use its product.
“If it were not for our network, Google would be nowhere.”
Petersen said the ability to download preferred programming would enable consumers to tailor content to their own tastes, rather than having providers dictate packages that include unwanted programs. “As more and more content becomes part of broadband delivery systems, that just expands the reach of what consumers can get,” Petersen noted. “They can select things of their interest versus what big cable systems want to be their interest. I think the key is that it creates a lot of individuality.”
Roy Elkins is founder of the Wisconsin-based Broadjam, a Web community that musicians use to submit songs and collaborate, and for fans to interact with artists. Elkins does not believe residentially metered broadband will directly impact Broadjam, and he supports the concept so long as artists are paid every time a song is downloaded. Through his blog, Elkins has promoted the idea of artists being paid out of money collected by Internet Service Providers and administered by a song rights organization like ASCAP or BMI.
He noted that most digital music is downloaded illegally, which shortchanges musicians. “I’m all for it [metered broadband] as long as content owners get paid,” he said. “I’m not for it if they are just increasing the cost for volume.”