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Cybernaut

Surviving the pay-as-you-go Internet

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By Andrew Mitchell

A few years ago Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would occasionally attempt to bill their customers extra for exceeding their monthly allowable bandwidth, prompting those people to immediately cancel their subscriptions and enroll with another ISP that wasn’t as stingy when it came to counting megabytes.

After a few years, the ISPs stopped trying. There are theoretical limits as to how much you are allowed to upload and download in a given month before extra charges start kicking in, but they are no longer enforced for most residential customers.

Give people an inch, however, and they’ll always take a mile. Between downloading movies from BitTorrent, viewing endless videos on YouTube, filling online photo albums on websites like Facebook and Flickr, playing online games, videoconferencing, and calling friends and family with VOIP, people are consuming more bandwidth than ever and the ISPs are struggling to cope during peak hours.

As Alaskan Senator and techno-coot Ted Stevens might remark, the Internet is like a series of tubes. There are limits to how much information can be crammed through the web at any given time, and when the amount of information being transferred creates bottlenecks it’s always been up to the ISPs to increase their carrying capacity to handle the load. Building and boosting Internet infrastructure is costly, and ISPs want to be able to recover at least some of those extra costs.

The question is how. One solution tabled in the U.S., and supported by Senator Stevens, would allow ISPs to bill the websites themselves for how much traffic they generate. That was an extremely unpopular suggestion because it favoured big media companies with deep pockets over smaller businesses, start-ups, and non-profits that rely on the web to get their message out. There is also a concern that the media companies that own the ISPs would use website billing as a pretense to shut down blogs and other sites over differences of political opinion or taste — an affront to the underlying concept of network neutrality that makes the web so democratic.

The other option would be for ISPs to come after their customers to recover costs, which is challenging because they don’t want to anger their fickle customers, and the ISPs could find themselves drawn into a price war that costs them more money in the long run.

There are also regulatory bodies, like the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC), that guard against monopolies and price gouging.

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