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The following technology-themed article appeared as part of my regular guest column contribution to the Eureka Times Standard Newspaper. In this 4/30/09 column, I discuss the trend of bandwidth limitations imposed upon users by broadband companies.

Coming soon: Pay-to-Play Internet Plans

It’s hard to believe we’ve been on the road for two years now. What started out as a one-year road trip has morphed into a lifestyle, mostly because of our ability to stay connected with the world through our satellite internet connection.

But it’s not perfect. We’ve had a few gripes, especially lately, when something on our network was calling out to the Internet, and we couldn’t diagnose the problem. We had a mystery virus eating up our bandwidth, and subjecting us to a “Fair Access Policy”, that our ISP, HugesNet, inflicts on subscribers.

For satellite users, the HughesNet Fair Access Policy (FAP) states that:

Hughes has established a download threshold for each of the HughesNet service plans that is well above the typical usage rates. Subscribers who exceed that threshold will experience reduced download speeds for approximately 24 hours.

In the satellite internet world, this situation is known as “getting FAPed.” Lots of things can set it off. Watch a movie online? FAP! Videoconference on Skype for too long? FAP! You don’t get charged a fee, but it’s a horribly painful affliction, giving you speeds akin to dial-up for 24 hours from the time you exceeded your limit.

Until now, FAP policies and bandwidth limitations like this have only been the problem of satellite users and others who rely on connectivity through wireless internet “air cards” provided by their cell phone company. But now, DSL and cable subscribers will start to feel the pain of “bandwidth caps” too.

The San Antonio Express-News reported on April 2, 2009, that Time Warner cable has tapped San Antonio (TX) as one of its first markets to charge varying rates depending on how much data you use, instead of a flat fee.

Time Warner claims that 5 percent of its customers use up to 50 percent of their total bandwidth. They claim they are looking out for the Honest Joes and Janes who don’t hog up the pipeline by frivolously using it for downloading movies or gaming. The company plans to implement this new pricing structure in Austin, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Rochester, New York.

AT&T isn’t far behind. Subscribers in Humboldt should also be on the lookout for the same kind of new pay-to-play system. Late last year, the company began testing bandwidth caps of 60 – 150 gigabytes per month in Reno, Nevada. Other providers following suit include Comcast and Charter Communications.

Users do get a warning if they approach their limit. But once they do, are charged anywhere from $1 per gigabyte over the cap, up to an extra $20 a month on their bills.

The implications of bandwidth caps are profound, and in this economic climate, will have far reaching consequences on businesses as well as individual users.

This pay-to-play scheme by communications giants is nothing new. Other providers have attempted policies like this before. Back in 1986, Ma Bell tried to get rid of its longstanding flat rate charge. They began charging users in Rochester, New York, fees based on how many phone calls they made or how far they were located from the exchange box.

But guess what? Consumers revolted, some even forming their own cooperatives to provide alternative services. Ma Bell eventually threw in the towel when enough of its users switched to the newly formed Rochester phone company.

Over 100 years later, it’s happening again, and we still can’t afford to let our access to the world be at the mercy of these companies. I encourage you to help the Humboldt tech community spread the word about this issue, by bringing it up for discussion with the Redwood Technology Consortium membership base. You can also read about the actions that consumers are taking, by visiting StopTheCap.com, or UsageCaps.com.

As for my satellite internet connection, next time we get FAPed, I guess that as long as we aren’t being charged extra, I won’t scream as loudly as I used to.

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Copyright 2009, Eureka Times Standard Newspaper.The print edition of this article first appeared in the 4/30/09 edition of the Times Standard.

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