Get Ready for a Crackdown on Broadband Use

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Illustration: Tomer Hanuka
Consumers using an expanding array of broadband services, including movie downloads, video games, online backup, and streaming audio and video, are flooding the nation's broadband pipes with data--and it could cost them.

Consumer advocates say that it's only a matter of time before average high-speed Internet users get slapped with the label "hog."

Craig Aaron, spokesperson for SavetheInternet.com, worries that Internet users may soon be charged extra for using "too much" bandwidth or cut off from using some bandwidth-hungry software applications.

Bandwidth demands in the United States have been doubling each year for some time, according to Tom Donnelly, cofounder of Sandvine, a network management firm. As this trend continues, Donnelly says, it puts pressure on ISPs and on applications such as file-sharing software and streaming multimedia content, giving ISPs an incentive to clamp down on heavy bandwidth users.

Major broadband ISPs shrug off criticism that their networks can't handle the increased demand for bandwidth. "We've been successfully delivering broadband services to our customers for 10 years, and that's not going to change anytime soon," says Mitch Bowling, senior vice president and general manager for Comcast's high-speed Internet group.

Time Warner, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, and other ISPs echo those sentiments. "Our network is extremely robust and [bandwidth] issues aren't a problem for us," says Jim Mailla, spokesperson for Optimum Online, a Charter Communications company.

Putting the Brakes on Bandwidth Hogs

Despite the rosy picture painted by ISPs, some service providers are already clamping down on bandwidth hogs. Others are experimenting with payment plans (such as tiered pricing) that raise the cost to consumers of excessive bandwidth use.

Analysts say that these moves indicate increasing pressure on broadband systems due to the volume of demand, and note that leading ISPs are moving quickly to avert bandwidth bottlenecks, as well as to forgo spending billions to upgrade aging networks.

For instance, Comcast has been tinkering with the way file-sharing software works on its network, slowing transfer speeds of data used by applications such as BitTorrent. Comcast has also been giving the heave-ho to customers who use the Internet most heavily, explaining that certain individual downloaders are using as much bandwidth as some of its business customers.

Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas explains that a single customer who uses disproportionately more bandwidth than his or her neighbors can slow down the Internet for everyone on the block. Comcast has faced a user uproar for manipulating the way file-sharing programs work and for introducing bandwidth caps on individual accounts without identifying what those caps are.

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