June 22, 2008
A Bad Idea on the Internet
SARCASM ON: It's a good thing the future of information and education - as well as the U.S. economy - won't have anything to do with the Internet. Otherwise, the emerging trend to start charging people for how much they use would be bad news indeed.
Sarcasm off: For years now, the United States has fallen further behind in important measures of Internet facility. The capacity of the average American connection - bandwidth - is slower, there are fewer of them, and they cost more.
The result is that while the rest of the world is rapidly exploring the emerging technologies of the World Wide Web, many U.S. users are plodding around in the backwater. Slow Internet connections have always been frustrating to use, but with a worldwide economy increasingly based on communication, they also threaten America's ability to compete.
It does that not only by making communication more difficult and slower, but by impeding development of the next-generation technologies that will dominate the future Internet, and the future of commerce. Other countries are well ahead of us already.
In South Korea, for example, the average Internet connection is 10 times as fast as in America, and it costs one-seventh as much, measured in the cost for each million of bits per second. And there's almost one subscriber for every household, according to a survey from The Information and Technology and Innovation Foundation. In Japan, while there are fewer connections than in America, they are 12 times as fast and cost one-twentieth as much.
While no European countries match the Internet speeds found in Asia, connections there are generally cheaper than in America, or more widespread, or both. The result is that by the foundation's broadband ranking, America ranks 15th, behind Australia and Canada, and tied with Luxembourg.
All that makes a new trend especially troubling. Time Warner Cable, Comcast and AT&T are all flirting with the idea of metering Internet usage - essentially charging folks for the bandwidth they use, the same way cell phone companies charge for minutes.
According to The New York Times, Time Warner's test in Texas charges folks $50 for 40 gigabytes of data a month. Forty gigs was once an unimaginable amount of data, but it now amounts to a few downloaded movies, or a bunch of video calls to granddad, or a pile of high-quality music.
This trend toward limiting bandwidth is growing not because Internet providers are mean or hate America. It's because the capacity they have to offer is constrained by the expensive wires connected to our houses, and because everyone's Internet usage affects everyone else's experience.
If your neighbor is downloading high-definition episodes of "iCarly," it will make your cable Internet connection slow to a crawl. And since - according to a modern rule of thumb - 5 percent of people use 95 percent of the available Internet capacity, the providers are trying, in their lead-handed way, to make more bandwidth available to more people.
At best, though, such measures are temporary. As more and more media migrate to Internet-based delivery, the need for bandwidth will only grow. Which means there's only one real solution: Make more.
Whether that will come through wireless or cellular technologies, or expansion of current offerings, or whether it will come in forms yet untested, bandwidth will certainly expand, no matter what limits current providers attempt to impose.
The only thing metering the Internet will surely accomplish, for all those companies doing it or considering it, is to alienate current customers, not to mention future ones.
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