Time Warner Cable May Abandon Unlimited Internet Access

On Thursday, Time Warner Cable will start trials of cell-phone-like Internet access plans for its customers in Beaumont, Texas. Under the plans, Time Warner will charge an overage fee to any customers who download or upload more than a pre-set amount, according to an AP story out today.

Per the story, the trial will charge $1 per gigabyte over the limit, which ranges from $30 a month for 5GB and a 768 kbps connection, to $55 for 40GB and a 15mbps connection.  The limits apply to both downloads and uploads.

I've seen these kind of limits suggested previously as a potential alternative to the traffic throttling performed by some ISPs to limit peer-to-peer file sharing on their networks.  The companies claim a small percentage of users eat up the majority of the network bandwidth, and suggest that applying a high-limit cap that wouldn't impact the majority of users would allow them to rein in the supposedly out-of-control downloaders.

The idea seems somewhat reasonable when you're talking about 250GB per month limits, which the AP story says Comcast suggests using.  To hit that cap, you'd have to download more than 8GB per day on average for an entire month, which is a huge amount of data.

But I remember thinking that implementing these limits would create the possibility of steadily lowering the cap until it did hit the average person. I thought that wouldn't happen for a while, like the gradual tightening of seat-belt laws. But lo and behold, here's this Time Warner plan with a paltry 5GB limit.  Sign up for an online software distribution service like Steam, or maybe streaming movies from Netflix, and you could easily hit that cap and start paying overage fees. 

That would make Internet access plans like cell phone plans, which to me represent some of the most consumer-unfriendly contracts around (after credit cards).  And as Michael Arrington of TechCrunch writes, widespread limits would stifle the kind of online business innovation that's just now taking off, such as the unlimited online backups I wrote about previously. 

This type of metering would be a horrible move for business and consumers alike, and I feel sorry for the Texas guinea pigs who will be subject to this test come Thursday.  Here's hoping it gets nipped in the bud.

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