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[ NNSquad ] ISPs Race Toward the Bandwidth Cap Twilight Zone

             ISPs Race Toward the Bandwidth Cap Twilight Zone


Greetings.  ISPs say that they mainly exist to serve their
subscribers.  But increasingly, it's difficult to be sure about
whose interests they're actually serving.

The New York Times is reporting that ISPs are all hot to trot for
bandwidth caps and "extra usage" charges, and some of these seem
best described as draconian ( http://tinyurl.com/isp-caps ).

Frontier is talking about a 5 GB/month bandwidth cap.  T-Mobile,
which had previously backed down on a 1 GB limit for Google Android
G1 users, now is calling customer data usage levels "crazy" and is
gearing up for limits and "excess data" fees 
( http://lauren.vortex.com/archive/000435.html ).

All around the Internet, Internet Service Providers, having suckered
users in for years based on the promise of "unlimited" usage (though
in reality it never really was truly unlimited in most cases) are
now priming the profit center pump -- with images of video moola
dancing merrily in their bean counters' hearts.

The calculus seems rather straightforward.  Legitimate video
applications now reportedly exceed P2P in terms of data volume.  But
many ISPs are video suppliers in their own right (cable, DSL
U-verse, etc.)  These internal video services, especially
pay-per-view, are cash cows supreme.  

The last thing that ISPs want is to be competing with a vast range
of outside Internet services which are also providing video.  So to
the extent that these "interlopers" can be marginalized and
disadvantaged, the more subscribers can be expected to avail
themselves of the ISPs' own video offerings.

Too simple an analysis?  Video is only one factor?  Fair enough.
But unfortunately, much of the data regarding ISP Internet traffic,
usage, and associated activities is considered proprietary by those
very same ISPs -- rendering outside observers impotent to
characterize the situation in a comprehensive manner.  

So we usually just have to accept an ISP's word for it when they
attempt to justify their disdain for what they call the "heavy
users" of the Internet, vs. their preferred users, whom we assume
are little old ladies from Pasadena who only use the Net on Sunday
to check on the weather before heading out to church.

Speaking of Internet usage choices -- here's a question to ponder.
Faced with bandwidth caps and extra charges, which of the following
is the average Internet user likely to cut back?  Video viewing? --
or routine application updates and their associated security fixes
that often don't seem to do anything particularly visible nor
interesting on users' systems?

Logic would point toward the former -- after all, video is typically
going to eat a much larger share of data than updates (though with a
5 GB cap, even some routine updates are going to definitely take a
significant chunk).  Psychology however suggests that before many
users will change their behavior with the applications that they
most use and enjoy, they'll probably turn off everything else, and
updates might easily fall into that latter category, with associated
"interesting" ramifications.  

The lack of an appropriate regulatory structure for ISPs in the U.S.
has left consumers of all types, sizes, and needs at the ISPs'
mercies.  Consumers usually have no effective paths to verify ISP
claims or protest their actions.  Meanwhile, ISPs are moving rapidly
toward usage-sensitive bandwidth caps and per-byte charging --
likely the most significant Internet paradigm shift to affect
consumers since the Net was first commercialized.

If you're feeling complacent that these ISP crackdowns haven't
affected your usage yet, don't get too comfortable.  

There are many definitions of "service" -- and when it comes to
various recent ISP actions, I'm increasingly reminded of a classic
original "Twilight Zone" episode.  To quote Lloyd Bochner in
"To Serve Man":

"Sooner or later, we'll all of us be on the menu."

Lauren Weinstein
lauren@vortex.com or lauren@pfir.org 
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR
   - People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org 
Co-Founder, NNSquad 
   - Network Neutrality Squad - http://www.nnsquad.org
Founder, PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com 
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com