Is there really a problem with bandwidth hogs?

Mobile phone plans give you more monthly minutes than you will ever use, at a very reasonable cost. For a bit more, you can get practically unlimited text messaging as well. Many land-line phone plans come with unlimited calling within the United States. With each month, Web-based storage sites are offering more gigabytes of storage for less and less money (free in some cases). And although the analogy does not work perfectly here, I would point out that my TV uses Comcast Cable; there is no limit to how much TV I can watch per month.

And so it goes. As technology improves, it usually becomes cheaper; we get less and less limits on its use. This is a welcome trend -- unless you are an Internet Service Provider such as Time-Warner, Comcast, or AT&T. They are seeking to start charging increased fees for people who use more bandwidth, as detailed in this San Francisco Chronicle article.

In some ways, this is the flip side of the Internet neutrality debate. The ISP's initial approach has been to have fast and slow lanes for Internet data. Big corporations would pay hefty fees to have their Web site data travel in the fast lane, while most of the rest of us would be be restricted to the scenic route. This would affect end users no matter how much they paid per month: Apple's Web site, presumably, would load lightning fast while John Doe's personal blog might take a minute or more to load. This threatens the egalitarian structure of the Web -- the same structure that allows small startups with little capital to become the next Google or YouTube. It would crush competition from small players. Even if Small Site A does something 10 times better than Big Site B, users may ignore Small Site A because of how much slower its site loads.

This approach has been severely criticized. And rightly so. With some luck, the approach may die altogether. Perhaps recognizing this, Internet Service Providers are seeking to increase their revenue from the opposite end of the spectrum: charge end users more based on how much bandwidth they use each month. The argument here is that there are Internet hogs, those 5% of users who are sucking up as much as 50% of the bandwidth. Why should someone who only uses the Internet to check their email, so the argument goes, pay the same as someone who downloads movies several times a day?

I admit to a bit of sympathy towards this argument -- as I have discussed in a previous column. But only a bit.

First, I worry that this is largely a "straw man" argument. The ISPs claim to want to protect me from having my service slowed by "bandwidth hogs." Well, I live in the SF Bay Area, certainly one of the densest concentrations of Internet users in the world. And I have rarely been bothered by a slowing down of my connection. Even when such slowdowns have occurred, they have been brief and the cause was usually a disruption in Comcast's service (not any hogging of bandwidth). So where is the problem exactly? Who has been complaining about hog-induced slowdowns, beyond the ISPs themselves?

There is already tiered pricing for end-users, depending upon how fast a connection you want. Do we really need an additional set of tiers based on bandwidth? I suspect not.

I also worry about the "slippery slope" problem. Once a bandwidth-based tiered price structure is in effect, how long before ISPs modify it so that all but the lowest bandwidth users are paying more per month? It becomes sort of like "basic" Cable TV is today. It's so "basic" that almost no one who signs up for cable sticks with only the basic plan. We all wind up paying more, often much more. Suggested ISP plans already describe charging increased rates for people using as little as 5GB/month. If ISPs are truly worried only about the upper 5% of users, why not limit price increases only to those 5%? Or look at it another way: Five years from now everyone may be using twice as much bandwidth as we use on average now. If a price structure is put in place based on today's usage, we could all be paying twice as much in five years.

Finally, the idea that you may ultimately be charged on a $/GB basis (much like you pay for gasoline in $/gallon today) is truly scary. When you rent a movie from iTunes, you are already paying Apple a rental fee. One day, it could turn out that Comcast charges you more to download a movie than Apple charges you to rent it. Every time you want to watch a free video online, or do anything that uses any significant bandwidth, you'd have to start calculating whether or not it's worth the cost in bandwidth. Ultimately, you may be forced to significantly restrict your use of the Web to keep your costs down. Or wind up paying your ISP a lot more dough. This would not be good -- unless your name is Comcast or AT&T.

Some people may argue that the gasoline analogy is more appropriate than I might like. In these days of rising gas prices, we may restrict how often we drive to a movie theater, for example. No one argues that all drivers should be charged the same amount for gas every month no matter how much they drive. True enough. But oil is a scarce resource; we may even run of it in a few decades. We are not about to run out of Internet bandwidth. In fact, quite the opposite. In the decades ahead, as technology improves, we are likely to have more and more bandwidth to play with. The question is: Who will get to control what we pay for it?