People seem to have a sense of entitlement to unlimited Internet access through their local Internet service providers. But like it or not, bandwidth caps and metered Internet are on their way.
Right now, ISPs are groping for a way to control usage. Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) recently revealed its intent to limit Internet users to a generous, but arbitrary, 250 Gbytes per month. After a single warning for exceeding this limit, Comcast says it's prepared to drop service to a customer. Comcast has also admitted to restricting peer-to-peer utilization on its network, another highly controversial practice.
Comcast isn’t the only provider imposing these limits, but it's one of the first to be challenged by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , which is responding to the real concerns that limits on Internet usage could impede the development of the Internet as a platform.
We should expect to hear a lot more back-and-forth between ISPs that want to limit their customers in one way or another and groups like the FCC that are working to protect the open nature of the Internet. But we’re at a turning point: It’s time to stop thinking of Internet access as an all-you-can-eat buffet and to start thinking of it as a utility. By changing to this paradigm it’s possible to look out for the needs of the consumer while giving the providers incentive to improve speed and maintain reliability.
The easiest comparison is to electrical service. If you take a close look at your electric bill, you’ll probably see two types of charges: a fixed charge for your base service and an additional charge per kilowatt you’ve actually used. In most cases, the base charge is probably based on the maximum amount of power (in amps) that your power hookup allows you to use at once.
Using the utility model, an ISP could charge for the maximum bit rate available (many already offer several maximum bit rates at graduated prices), then a reasonable price for each gigabyte used. To simplify the user experience and reduce concern about overages, it makes sense to include a generous amount of leeway with the service -- say, 200 Gbytes -- but it will be essential to give the user a way to monitor how it's consumed.
Ideally, enough bandwidth and storage would be included with the basic plan to more than satisfy the typical user, including allowance for downloading a reasonable amount of video and audio. (For reference, movies available on iTunes tend to run just a bit over 1 Gbyte.) With packages in the hundreds of Gbytes, the average user’s Internet experience and usage pattern is unlikely to be affected at all. But customers should not hesitate to stay up to date on their system updates and virus software.
On the other hand, heavy users who are exchanging very large amounts of data will encounter additional fees for their usage. The fees should not be (and don’t need to be) exorbitant; rather, they should be a reasonable overage fee, like 10 cents per Gbyte. This type of charge would be enough to deter excessive use by the few users now consuming the bulk of Internet bandwidth, while costing legitimate users who may occasionally go over the minimum a nominal fee.
These cheap, but not negligible, charges will encourage users to limit, or at least consider their utilization. They should not discourage legitimate users from freely consuming Internet content, even in multiple-computer households. To the ISP, these charges offer a way to control growth and recover some additional revenue from those who are using their services most.
Unlimited Internet access has allowed both consumers and content creators to explore different uses and directions for the Internet, but it’s time to get away from the “one size fits all” service model. Expecting your ISP to provide unlimited bandwidth for one price is like expecting your electric company to provide unlimited power for one price. Though not in shortage, bandwidth is a finite resource, and we need to take responsibility for what we use and the impact it has on the providers.
— Jon Emmons, information technology author and blogger at Life After Coffee.com