Saturday, April 30, 2011

Metered Internet

In the early days of the Internet, some 10-15 years ago, there was a different landscape than we view before us today. Consumers and content providers faced a strange problem. Many consumers used slow but cheap dial-up connections to access the Internet. They couldn't justify the outrageous costs of high speed Internet, which probably wasn't even available where they lived. Maybe if there was actually any good content beyond plain text and some banded gifs, it would be worth paying the higher price, and I'm not just talking about those Flash splash pages that were popular back in 1999. I mean real multimedia content.

Content producers didn't want to invest in putting heavy content online, however, because nobody could see it. It would take too long to download over a 56K connection; there really wasn't an audience with the necessary bandwidth, other than perhaps faculty and students at universities.

We talked about it, though. Some day in the future, we would all have broadband access, and we would be able to watch videos whenever we wanted. We would make video calls, share music, and play games. As the content grew little by little, so would the numbers of broadband subscribers until there was a critical mass.

High speed Internet is practically considered a public good now, and its pervasiveness is taken for granted. Interactive multimedia content abounds, broadband access is available in most homes, as well as on mobile devices, and many consumers produce large amounts of their own content.

So of course we are now taking the obvious step of reducing our broadband use through throttling and overage charges.

In Canada, there have been some crazy expensive overage plans that look like they are being scaled back due to their ridiculosity. I can't find the link right now, but one blogger calculated that between speed limits and overage charges, it was both faster and cheaper to buy a new terabyte hard drive, fill it up, and overnight it across the country than it would be to transfer the data over the internet.

These data caps are advertised as necessary due to the strain from multimedia content, especially video sites like youtube, hulu, netflix, and the rest of their ilk. That sounds reasonable until you look at the way service providers are bundling internet-based phones and TV along with their internet service. So yes, that's right, the service providers are piling more types of traffic onto the very same network that they claim is not big enough for current usage.

The method of measuring by amount of data transferred over a month is flawed anyway. Data transfer should only really be measured by available speed. If you want to stream voice and video, you need a higher speed than if you just tweet and check emails with little real regard to volume.

Mobile is following the footsteps of traditional ISPs. Many mobile carriers are touting new cheaper wireless data plans, which actually make a ton of sense for those people who buy a smartphone with no intent of actually getting online with it. And there are a lot of people for whom that is the case. The early adopters of smartphones were IT guys who used the data like crazy. Now that the common folk carry smartphones, they don't use them to their full potential. It's still seen as odd when someone looks up information on the internet using their phone whether during a class or an informal conversation. Oh, who's Mr. Smart Pants, showing off his fancy phone? Well, you could have looked it up on your phone, too, but you apparently don't know how.

So there are some heavy users and some light users of mobile internet, so it makes sense to let the light users pay less, right? Have we learned nothing? Notice how more phones are coming with videoconferencing hardware and applications? Notice how everyone has downloadable apps for everything? Notice how more and more devices will act as a GPS with turn by turn directions? Notice how more content providers are advertising that their content is being optimized for these mobile devices? Does this sound familiar? There is more and better multimedia content coming available for smartphones, not to mention tablets which have finally started to take hold. These applications and content are user friendly enough that the non-techie masses will start using them more. The social stigma of actually using your device in a way that approaches its potential will decrease.

Let me put it more directly. Unlimited data plans on mobile devices served well to stimulate the generation of more multimedia mobile content. Now that there is plenty of content, service providers are dropping the unlimited data plans before everyone starts using the data fully, telling them that it is for their own good, but knowing full well that very soon everyone will be using more data and start slamming up against massive overage charges. Just like traditional landline high speed internet only a short time ago.