Being a telecommunications company is hard. You sign a franchise agreement with a city, ensuring that you can provide service without competition for the duration of the agreement. Once you have an installed customer base with no one else to turn to, you’re pretty much in control. Rate hikes, data caps and bandwidth throttling are yours to set; unless you make the FCC mad, nothing can stop you.
What I don’t understand is why we take it. The internet has become so vital to our way of life that we really can’t separate ourselves from it. We accept that our internet bill can change at our internet service provider’s (ISP) whims because we refuse to accept what we’d lose if we stopped paying it. We accept that our ISP has poor customer service, high prices or downloading limits because we have no other options. In an industry supposedly bound by the rules of capitalism and competition, we instead see monopolies. As a result, our quality of service suffers, and so does the adoption of technology.
Consider the case of AT&T’s new data caps. These caps set the limit for how much data you are allowed to consume in one billing period. Exceeding this amount doesn’t cut you off from the internet, but you do incur a $10 fee for every 50 gigabytes you go over. At first glance, these data caps look fairly generous: a 150-gigabyte cap for DSL users and a 250-gigabyte cap for U-Verse broadband customers. On paper, that seems like a lot, but a 7-megabyte PDF here and a 75-megabyte streaming video there add up after a while. If you like to watch your favorite shows and movies instantly, you should probably know that streaming HD video from Netflix or similar services can burn up to 2 gigabytes per hour. AT&T claims that only one in 50 customers — 2 percent — regularly exceed these limits, but 2 percent of tens of millions of customers is still a large number, and it’s one that can only grow as we become a more web-centric culture.
AT&T is not alone in its data capping efforts. Comcast implemented their 250-gigabyte broadband cap back in 2008, and Frontier has, on several occasions, attempted to impose downright draconian fees on heavy bandwidth users.
The problem is that we don’t have a choice. The companies that provide our internet access are often the ones who own the infrastructure we use to access the internet, by virtue of franchise agreements signed with city governments. These agreements — which usually last five or more years — allow ISPs control over the network, excluding all other companies. As a result, there are rarely more than two or three ISPs in an area. When all of them threaten to implement the same service limitations, we’re left with no option but to accept their restraints.
When service providers impose these restrictions, it’s the consumers who loose. In the long run, having to pay a few extra dollars for exceeding your limit seems like a minor inconvenience. What data caps don’t take into consideration, however, is the pace at which technology advances. What seems like more than enough in 2011 becomes uncomfortably small by 2014. The internet is part of our culture and society now, and it’s only going to become more complex. Imagine all the potential ramifications of limiting how much data customers are allowed to use. Services either adapt or become more expensive. Those that adapt must ax features in order to stay competitive in a market where bandwidth is a limited resource. Even the ads that keep many of our online services free or reasonably priced would take a hit; large, flashy ads are just one more thing that takes up bandwidth.
In the end, we need one of two things: guaranteed net neutrality or guaranteed reasonable prices and services. We’re currently looking down the double barrel of tiered services and price gouging. How we fix it is up to us, but in the end we can’t stand for it. Strengthen the FCC, imposing regulations encouraging competition and discouraging unfair service; or take the radical approach and advocate for municipally-run internet. By favoring greed, the current model stifles innovation and change, ignoring the fact that the internet is constantly growing and adapting.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Reporter.