Rich Warren: Internet providers all geared up to charge for data

Most people consume data like water. They download from the Internet as if it's an inexhaustible resource.

Until recently, it resembled well water rather than municipally supplied water. You pay for the electricity, and pump as much as desired at no additional cost. That's been changing throughout the country, and soon it will be coming to a router near you.

Mediacom recently announced a data cap of 350 gigabytes per month for its premium subscribers and as little as 99 GB per month for basic subscribers. This should not worry the average user, but it's an ominous precedent.

Email uses a trivial amount of data and downloading software or music also requires few gigabytes. However, downloading or streaming movies and high-definition video can gobble gigabytes in a hurry. Still, you can download almost a movie a day before hitting that 99 GB limit.

Then again, that's this month. There's nothing to stop your Internet provider from progressively lowering limits. In a year, it could be 50 GB for basic subscribers and 150 for premium.

The cable company will tell you that it lacks the bandwidth to allow everyone to continuously download movies or watch other high definition video from the Internet. That's akin to the water company telling you that if you water your lawn there won't be enough water to take a shower.

Wired Internet is a far cry from wireless. The cellphone companies, at this time, legitimately can claim they lack the bandwidth for unlimited data plans. Sprint offers so-called unlimited data because it doesn't have enough customers to saturate its network.

The real motives behind the cable companies instituting data caps are twofold. Companies like Mediacom make their profits from selling you video packages, mainly movies. If you suddenly start downloading your movies from Netflix or Amazon, for instance, you don't necessarily need that cable package any longer. In fact, Netflix, now a step ahead of the curve, offers exclusive TV shows not on cable.

Some folks also participate in torrents that distribute audio and video over the Internet at high speed to thousands of users. Each home computer becomes a mini-server providing pieces of movies to viewers hundreds of miles away. The complete movie comes together from scores or hundreds of these computers supplying segments of desired video that users store on their hard drives.

A lesser concern, but still real, involves people sharing connections via Wi-Fi. The Internet service provider sees only the back end of your modem or DSL adapter. Without some complicated sleuthing, it does not know what happens after that point.

So if you make a deal with your neighbors to wirelessly provide them with Internet connectivity (which violates your terms of service agreement with the ISP), those gigabytes quickly fly by. The ISP has a valid issue with this illegitimate sharing.

Until now, most people considered data an unlimited resource. Once you pay for the pipe, however much you can extract from it is yours. Certainly, you may pay for content, which is more common, but that's intellectual property, not actual data bits.

Those old enough to recall the Bell telephone era remember that you paid per minute for long-distance telephone calls.

Still, something about data caps sticks in the craw. Once you exceed your cap, the bucket o'bytes is usually sold in minimum quantities of 50 GB, at a cost as high as $1 per gigabyte.

It costs the ISP very little to provide the service. Apparently it is simply protecting its turf — and profits — when it comes to supplying video.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be reached via email at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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