Get ready for a crackdown on broadband use

As traffic increases, experts say ISPs may start charging by the gigabyte, limiting use of some services and snooping at the data passing through their networks.

Time Warner Cable's Approach

Time Warner Cable is experimenting with managing bandwidth by billing its customers, not at a flat monthly rate, but on the basis of how much bandwidth each customer uses. The cable company is rolling out a trial version of a consumption-based billing system in Texas later this year. "We have more than enough bandwidth, but we are looking to the future," says Alex Dudley, spokesperson for Time Warner Cable.

Under the new billing scheme, customers who exceed their monthly bandwidth allotment risk incurring an overage charge. A spokesperson says that the billing scheme isn't in place yet, so the company doesn't yet have any hard numbers available regarding these charges.

Cox Communications says that it now imposes "monthly consumption caps" on its customers and reserves the right to "suspend" account holders who use more than their allotted bandwidth. The company outlines these policies on its Web site.

If Cox users consistently exceed their bandwidth limits, Cox either sends them an e-mail or calls to urge them to reduce bandwidth consumption or upgrade to a higher tier of service, says David Deliman, a Cox spokesperson. Cox wouldn't say whether the company has ever ousted a customer.

AT&T's CEO Randall Stephenson has said publicly that he has considered blocking pirated content from the AT&T network. Big Champagne, a market research firm that tracks file-sharing sites, estimates that peer-to-peer traffic accounts for more than half of all Internet traffic.

Controversial moves

Bandwidth issues will move toward center stage in the months ahead as Congress considers a new Net neutrality bill that Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced earlier this week. ("Net neutrality" refers to the principle that all Internet traffic be treated equally.) Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has stepped up its investigation into complaints that Comcast secretly slowed file sharing by its customers.

The debate over Net neutrality--between those who believe in unfettered access to the Internet and the ISPs that manage the on-ramps to the Internet--is getting louder quickly.

ISPs say that it's time to re-examine the FCC's longstanding policy prohibiting ISPs from "blocking" specific applications. The FCC does permit "reasonable network management," which ISPs interpret in one way and Net neutrality advocates in another.

Net neutrality proponents agree that network management is necessary. But managing a network too stringently comes dangerously close to violating the principles underlying Net neutrality, they say.

"Without some type of management of the Internet by ISPs, the Internet would become unstable," says Jay Rolls, vice president of technology for Cox Communications. Like virtually every ISP contacted for this story, Cox says that it engages in various forms of Internet traffic management (not blocking), called "traffic shaping" and "traffic prioritization."

For example, according to Rolls, Cox gives priority on its network to applications--such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)--that require a consistent and reliable Internet connection, over applications--such as e-mail--that don't.

Privacy advocates express concern that, in order to make sense of Internet traffic, an ISP must "look" at it to determine whether bandwidth data is Web browsing content, a file transfer, or VoIP communication. That "look" is tantamount to snooping, they say--not only seeing what kind of content is being downloaded in general, but also observing what the precise content is.

If an ISP is going to identify data packets that belong to e-mail, music file downloads, or VoIP, privacy advocates argue, what's to stop it from peeking at the content, reading the e-mail, identifying the downloaded song, or noting who is saying what during a VoIP call.

It's like a postal worker opening every letter tand scanning the contents to see whether it's junk mail, a bill, a love letter, or something else.

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Tom Spring

PC World

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