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Bandwidth caps and the end of the internet as you know it

Wired has as story running about AT&T's decision to institute a bandwidth cap for its broadband customers and what that might mean for you even if you don't use AT&T. The move follows a similar action by Comcast which placed a 250GB cap on downloads (with a $10 per 50GB over) ostensibly designed to reduce network congestion. The problem is that ISPs (internet service providers) aren't just providing "internet" anymore. Earlier this year, Comcast merged with NBC in a consolidation that spells disaster for competition in media and seriously limits the number of opinions you, as a consumer will have access to.

If your ISP (cablevision, verizon, et al) decides to merge with FOX while at the same time caps the amount of information you can receive from other sources or charges you exorbitantly for those (or just scares you away from using other sources with high overage charges) you may well end up getting the majority of your entertainment (and News) from FOX. This is exactly what a net neutrality arrangement was supposed to avoid, but Congress and the corporate players in the communications industry have worked very hard to neuter the FCC (and have effectively stripped the FCC of the right to regulate the internet).

It is ironic that a nationwide infrastructure system designed by the government (read: the people) to maintain and re-route critical communications even under a nuclear attack; having been opened to the people for its free and open use (by Al Gore) spawned a new industry which makes huge profits and has been able to twist the law so that it can no longer be regulated by that government, which in turn can no longer ensure that people continue to have free and fair access to it.

These recent moves to cap the amount of broadband bandwidth available to the consumer per month is not, as the ISPs like to claim, really about congestion (although on cable networks that is more of a concern at certain times of the day) as it is about reducing the number of eyeballs on Netflix and other streaming sites which are now competition to them in the media market. ISPs are no longer just ISPs, they are now in the business of creating competing media. How long do you think it will be before those caps get lowered even further? Once the concept of a cap is accepted by the consumer (as it already is in cell phones and SMS texting) its not a stretch to see the bigger profits to be made in lowering the caps.

A quick calculation suggests that the current caps (even AT&Ts 150GB DSL cap) would be more than enough for me personally based on my own viewing habits, but I'm not the one in the family who uses it the most and I know that many other familys may watch more shows per day or have more than one TV in their house and those folks might begin to think twice about streaming pretty soon after their first bill arrives. But there are more uses for bandwidth than streaming video which might affect me - large work related file transfers, using terminal services for remote support and administration, downloading ISO images, etc.

I'm told that I have a choice of ISPs, and that the free market is the best way for things to settle themselves out, but I'm afraid I don't buy those kinds of arguments. I really have very limited choice (and in fact, for broadband speeds like I currently enjoy I have no other choice) and whenever you have huge monopolies involved your choice is limited (which is why we have anti-trust laws in the first place). If there is only one supplier, thats not much of a free market. There are things that the government needs to regulate. We have an FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for a good reason - to ensure that the foods and drugs we find in the marketplace meet some safety standards. We have an FCC for a reason as well - to ensure that all players in a given communications market compete fairly and operate by some set standards for the good of the nation. I'm afraid broadband caps are the beginning of the end of the greatest democratic invention of all time.