Is our Internet future in danger?

Signs point to a bandwidth shortage, and avoiding that may mean you'll pay more for broadband usage

Broadband cable providers are also trying to open the pipe. A technology called wideband, whereby cable operators bond several channels together to increase Internet-access speeds, is gaining momentum. This technique can provide speeds of 150Mbps.

But such large investments have been slow in coming, mainly because Wall Street dislikes them. Every dollar on capital improvements reduces carriers' profits, and investors tend to punish capital investments by reducing carriers' stock prices, notes the Free Press's Turner. Because most broadband providers have little or no competition, he says, the Wall Street pressure usually prevails.

Here come usage caps, overage charges, and metered Internet

Despite the distaste for capital investment, carriers have begun investing in it. A big reason is that with the high availability of broadband in urban and suburban areas, there aren't enough profitable new customers left to reach.

Carriers can't raise prices for their current service levels -- current prices are already too high to attract the broadband holdouts. But the carriers also can't lower their prices to attract those customers, since that would reduce their income as existing customers trade down to lower-priced plans, says Gartner's Jopling. "For the foreseeable future, there is a limit on how pricing may increase or decrease. We will only get much lower prices if every home has fiber to it," because that would make capacity essentially unlimited.

That leaves two options: offering premium-priced high-capacity services (a form of tiered pricing) and charging based on usage. Carriers are experimenting with both to bring in more dollars.

Usage caps are the stealth form of usage-based pricing, though several lawsuits have forced US carriers to stop being secretive about them. For example, Comcast agreed this year to pay Florida US$150,000 in a settlement over Comcast's policy of prohibiting excessive use of bandwidth without informing customers of limits. Some customers had their service cut off. In October, Comcast started its new policy, which limits the amount of data a subscriber can send and receive every month at 250GB. Violators will have their service suspended for a year.

Now, Time Warner Cable is testing metered-usage pricing. New broadband subscribers in Beaumont, Texas, are the test case. Pricing starts at US$29.95 a month for a speed of 768Kbps and a 5GB usage cap, and it goes up to US$54.90 for 15Mbps speed and a 40GB cap. It costs US$1 for every gigabyte of usage over the cap. Subscribers can check their usage on Time Warner Cable's Web page. AT&T is testing a similar plan in Reno; the basic US$15 768Kbps plan has a 20GB-per-month usage cap, while the as-yet-unpriced 10Mbps plan has a 150GB-per-month usage cap. Users pay US$1 per extra gigabyte used, and can check their usage at AT&T's Web site.

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