Sep 16, 2010

Internet: charged by volume or time?

Recently, articles and remarks in the telecommunications industry point toward a change in the way the Internet service is being charged to the customers.After a boombastic liberalization of the hours you spent connected to the web, and the load you accessed on it, where flat rates lead the trend (in a lot of places, but not all, mind you), the speech is coming loud and clear, waging all kinds of unseeming reasons for a change towards volume charging. What does it means? It means that instead of paying, lets say $19.95 a month to AT&T's DSL Basic, whatever you download, at a given bandwidth 768/128 Kbps (first value is the downloading speed and the second the uploading one), the proposal is that you pay for each KB, MB or GB you download or upload.

The first reason for it, the nice one, is that the number of computers, handsets and whatnots hooking on the net, with quite high download and upload demands are putting a significant strain to the networks and installed equipment, and so a "rationalization" of it's use is needed. The second reason nobody has ever mentioned, and really, I believe nobody will, therefore this one comes out of my "pretty conspiracy-theory messed head", is that perhaps someone has seen the potential of skimming that this way of charging right now has. Work with me for a moment, would you? Think of this: when the internet was blooming, and blooming in earnest, sites weren't all that sophisticated, and people really just used the internet from their computers at home, hooked to it with cables, and well, many prefered to use the "cheaper" or "free" options such as using the internet at the office or at school, or at the local library. Cybercafes had their boom there, with all their hard-to-get, virus-poluted units.

The internet was important already in our lives, but we could live without it through a weekend, or until we've got home, until we came back from vacations or until the library opened again. If our internet service got too expensive we terminated the contract and sated our need for the web in other places, and it wasn't the end of the world. There were a few techno-geeks who could connect their PDA's to the hotspots and check their e-mails, but that wasn't the norm. So, in order to boots the consume of the Internet, operators decided to flat rate. Great idea. ^_^

People saw that that was good and started using more of it. It didn't matter how many hours a day you sat in front of the net, you would pay the same every month, so why not take advantage of it? Technology soon pushed it up, with better resolution and heavier pictures, sounds, videos and sites. Applications appeared and cluttered the cyberspace with better tricks, neater presentation and more Kbs you would ever imagine. The Internet jumped from the desktops and laptops confined to the office and home, to be everywhere. Internet met you at the coffeeshop, entertained you while you sipped your Frappaccino. It walks with you down the boulevard, keeps you company on the bus. The cyberworld evolved and reached everywhere, and soon you were blogging from the airport, tweeting from the taxi, Skyping while you go shopping, Facebooking as you wait for the elevator, checking your e-mails on the bathroom, reading the news in the movie before the film starts, perhaps googling the name of the director at the end of it because the movie was so freaking good you want to see more from the same genius. You decided to go beyond, buy yourself an e-reader, and now you download your favorite books in e-book format from anywhere. Get home, buy a load and leave it on your nightstand downloading. Like fresh bread, you wake up with an nice rack of fresh books to read. The internet got everywhere, and size didn't matter anymore, and after years of this, we've got used to it, invited it in our lives, made it more a part of it. And now operators want to change the rules.

Now, let me ask you one simple question: do you know how heavy this blog you are reading is? Do you know how you can check how heavy is? Because it's not only the letters and the links, but the pictures too. And what about the eventual video that appears here and there? Do you know how many Kbs are we talking about? Personally, I have no idea. And from here, what's the weight in Kbps of the sites you visit usually? How do you know how heavy they are? Most of us don't know. What is more, most of us have no idea how many Gbs we use in a month, or how to measure them. There's no counter, nor our operators put a counter anywhere for us to control that.

Now, before you click you should know how heavy the given site will be, and whether you can afford it or not. Kiss good-bye the $19.95/month you loved, you've got used to, because now there is no more. Think twice before refreshing your site because, yes, that's another download. And when the bills hit the proverbial fan, you'd be forced to either go bankrupt paying the internet that used to be affordable, or rescind your contract, and sell your fancy iPhone for a phone that does what phones are supposed to do: calls and sms. Cybercafes, and any place and option that opens up the chance to surf without regarding the volume downloaded or uploaded will rise again.

This way of charging, naturally will bring the number of visitors to different sites down, which would mean that advertizing in many of them would stop being an attractive business. Sites that bloom thanks to constant visitors and continued presence, as well as the use and download of apps will plumet. After all, it's not only a matter of buying the app, perhaps even giving away the rights over your personal data, but also paying the Kbs it weights. And well, for those staying online, advertizing, no matter how annoying, wouldn't be free anymore. Nope, they will be paying for every Kb those banners, pop-ups and flashy things weight.

I'm no engineer, so I don't know what kind of Ragnarok the current system is doing to the net, but I am an economist working in this Industry and I know what the proposed charging method could do. I also know that there are other ways to tackle the matter.

Some articles I read before all this started to take these proportions, said that it happened that certain companies (non mentioned in the articles) had no idea how much the flat rate was really costing them, nor had any idea how to measure it. In my personal opinion, that shouldn't be all that problematic, assuming they have an ordered, correct account of the costs associated with the service. If they don't, flat rate or per Kb, they won't know how much it costs, so no, this change is no solution, unless, of course, what they want is to skim the service fat and then leave a useless carcass, pulling people back to the time when we all watched TV, shopped in stores, communicated through phones and snailmail and read paper books.

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