Internet bandwidth hogs might not be the only ones with a stake in the outcome of pilot tests Time Warner and Comcast have announced they are beginning in some cities. It may well be that anyone who wants to be able to watch video over the Internet should be paying attention to what's going on here.
The two cable giants are taking somewhat different approaches to the problem of a very few customers using a very large share of high-speed Internet bandwidth. Time Warner is trying out tiered price levels, with the low being $30 and 5GB per month and a dollar penalty for each extra gigabyte used. Comcast, responding to legal pressure over its throttling of P2P traffic and other dubious practices, says it will now punish the most abusive users rather than particular applications.
There are any number of arguments to be made for and against these two approaches. Personally, I suspect the Time Warner tiered plans have a better chance of actually solving the problem while being reasonably fair to customers. At least customers will ultimately know how much bandwidth they're using and therefore be able to shop for a better deal if they want. But from what their spokesperson has told the New York Times so far, it sounds like Comcast still wants to keep customers in the dark as much as possible about what the limits are and whether the customer is exceeding them. I'd rather pay more and know what's going on than unknowingly incur a performance penalty.
Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is both pilot programs leave raise some bigger concerns about net neutrality, as pointed out by Mehan Jayasuriya at Public Knowledge. "There is still, however, one very large elephant left in the room: the fact that both Comcast and Time Warner are cable television providers," he wrote. "And as we all know, despite the industry's constant invocation of the P2P bogeyman, at present, the largest bandwidth hog is actually streaming video. Clearly, the emergence of online video is something that cable video providers find very threatening and by capping off bandwidth usage, they're effectively killing two birds with one stone; discouraging users from using their Internet connections for video while increasing the efficiency of the network. Is this anti-competitive? It sure seems like it."
YouTube and other current, and future, video-over-IP services don't just represent an application that could lots of cable company Internet bandwidth - in the long term they pose a very threat to the cable business itself. As with everything in the net neutrality debate, balancing the established interests of different industries while leaving the door open to new technology and yet-unthought-of industries is not going to be easy. The one thing I do know though is the only approach that's going to work is one that's open and visible for us all to see.
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