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Cable Technology Feature Article

July 02, 2012

Internet Metering Coming Soon with Several Providers

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

The rise in bandwidth consumption, both mobile and landline-based, is leading businesses to rethink the way they price Internet access. For users who had grown accustomed to all-you-can-eat style plans, this change in stance no doubt comes as a shock. But major providers are already looking to make the move, and in some places, it has already begun.

One major provider to look into the practice is Time Warner (News - Alert) Cable, who has already launched a metered billing service in Texas. Customers are given a "usage tracker" system that allows them to follow just how much they're using, and are billed accordingly. In a bid to encourage lighter use of the Internet, Time Warner's offering its customers in that area a special plan in which they get just five gigabytes of Internet access a month, and if they don't go over that five, they get a $5 discount on the bill. Going over, meanwhile, costs $1 per additional gigabyte.

Considering that five gigabytes represents the equivalent of about two movie downloads in HD, it's a fairly low-end program. For many users, this may be all that's needed. But with more and more streaming video coming online every day, and more users interested in seeing said video, the strategy that cable providers--who are also changing their philosophies to suit; some say that Time Warner is beginning to refer to itself as a "broadband company" instead of a "cable company--are adopting may put users at a disadvantage.

The more aware users become of their broadband access habits, some believe, the more likely they are to be conscious of it and start looking into conservation methods. Conservation methods don't bode well for streaming video, which consumes a lot of bandwidth, and leaves services like Netflix and Hulu (News - Alert) Plus at a marked disadvantage. This in turn provides a note of protectionism for more traditional services, which are often offered by the same companies offering broadband access in the first place.

The cable companies, for their part, point to the explosive growth of online services and say that this is all the evidence anyone needs that cable companies--that indeed, bandwidth companies--aren't "standing in the way", as Brian Dietz of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association describes it. However, there is doubt about Dietz's stance, and not just from savvy Internet users who wonder what the growth in those services would be if it weren't for bandwidth caps and metered Internet access. The Justice Department's antitrust division is currently conducting investigations into the cable industry, specifically examining the role that the cable providers are playing in what's being called "anti-competitive behavior". Yet some also believe that the Justice Department's investigation may well speed the move toward usage-based pricing.

Yet even in this, there is contradiction. Time Warner Cable, for example, began its Texas metering program by questioning users about how they use the Internet in general, including terms like "watching TV / movie clips" and "Internet gaming". Those terms prompt customer service reps to point customers to unlimited bandwidth plans.

Indeed, users want more bandwidth. Users want what they want when they want it, and they don't much care for cable providers' explanations as to why they can't have it. But bandwidth isn't easy to come by, and infrastructure expensive. So the disconnect between users and providers will likely continue for some time, at least, until better solutions can be discovered.

Edited by Juliana Kenny

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