Yo FCC! Are You Doing Anything About Metered Broadband?

In an effort to burnish his public image, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin has taken up a populist and politically lucrative crusade against the evil cable company Comcast and its nefarious efforts to block certain kinds of traffic.

Given that we all love to hate our cable companies, especially the big ones, it is a calculated bet by Martin, who is rumored to be contemplating running for the House of Representatives after he leaves the FCC. No wonder he has been campaigning hard to chastise Comcast, and perhaps censure them for an undeniably lamentable act.

My inner cynic believes that this so-called punishment is nothing but a smart tactic by Martin to show that he is on the side of Network Neutrality and a champion of open access and the people. He told The New York Times that he was pursuing this because of openness he wants to see in the networks.

“We are setting a very high bar on what network operators can do in terms of putting limits on consumers.”

I chortled when I read that and had to shake off the image of Martin as the proverbial Internet Robin Hood. The reality is that all this talk is nothing but hot air, a diversionary tactic that taking the attention away from a bigger, more evil problem that’s emerging for the U.S. Internet: metered broadband.

Metered Broadband, better even with Network Neutrality

Today for instance, Frontier, a smallish telephone company that has operations in upstate New York, decided to impose a 5GB bandwidth transfer limit on some of its DSL offerings. As my dear friend Dave Burstein pointed out earlier today, their main rival is Time Warner Cable, which also wants to charge people by the byte.

While 5 GB looks pretty sizable – Comcast claims that their average broadband subscriber only uses 2 GB per month – in reality, it’s nothing. It’s essentially two movies in HD. Once you go over the limit, the meter ticks over faster than a San Francisco taxicab. That would limit the amount of Internet a consumer can use on a daily basis, thereby limiting the amount of time people spend on Facebook, MySpace, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo or any one of numerous services.

The situation would be no different than the early days of dial-up, when the pain of dialing up prevented us from being always on the network. When broadband came along, things changed, for usage of services like Google skyrocketed, Skype came along and YouTube became part of our lives.

Of course, it helped that the growing use of the Internet increased the amount of advertising dollars being spent online. The billions of dollars in profits being raked in by web companies made broadband providers – mostly old phone companies and cable companies with reputations for pulling a fast one on customers – jealous.

First they thought that they could get rid of Network Neutrality – by charging web companies special rates to make their sites easier to access than the non-paying ones. That turned out to be a political hairball. Comcast is finding that out the hard way.

Fuzzy Math of 5 GB Download Limits

Instead, they came out with an ingenious plan: Charge people by the byte, aka metered broadband. This way no one can blame them for playing favorites, and if consumers continue to constantly use the network, then they will have to pay more and more cash. In an earlier post, we did the math on how carriers are going to gouge consumers and pointed out what you can do with 5 GB a month:

* download about 1,000 songs from iTunes. * download five full-length movies from iTunes. * watch about 500 minutes of YouTube video. * share about 2,500 two-megabyte pictures.

According to data cobbled together by Dave, since 2001 web data traffic has grown 25-40 percent per user. As we use more web-only services – Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Hulu – we are going to consume more and more bandwidth. Add to it iTunes downloads, and before you know it we would be using much more than the 5 GB some incumbents want us to use. It is hardly a surprise then that nearly 90 percent of you who responded to an earlier poll conducted by us found the idea of metered broadband moronic.

Saving Incumbent Video Schemes

What makes the scheme even more devious and clever is that it saves the service providers’ video franchises. I had earlier pointed out that most of these carriers have spent billions of dollars to upgrade their video networks (telecom operators built entirely new ones) with a view that they could earn big profits as video-on-demand takes off.

The broadband juggernaut allows content owners to go directly to the consumers, by passing these video gatekeepers. But by capping the bandwidth and asking people to pony up big dollars for over-the-wire downloads, the pipe owners want to ensure that they can make their money back and then fleece us silly.

That is so much better than getting rid of Network Neutrality and of course, much harder to prove since the carriers control the numbers and they know how to fudge them silly. With that as background, here is the juicy little bit from The New York Times story that shows Martin’s heart isn’t in the right place, Comcast’s pending punishment notwithstanding:

Mr. Martin was asked whether the commission’s approach will push more Internet providers to start to impose caps on how much bandwidth consumers can use. He said he wanted to reserve judgment on that trend. He seemed comfortable with Internet providers offering services with limits, so long as they are clearly stated.

If Martin wants us to believe in him as one of the people, the 21st century Robin Hood who is looking out for the U.S. Internet consumer, then he should start by putting an end to this metered broadband nonsense right now.

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