Thursday, June 12, 2008

Will Download Limits Affect Genealogy Researchers?

Over the past few weeks, I have been following an interesting and potentially vexing issue: the concept of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) enforcing data download / data transfer limits as part of their terms of service.

In a nutshell, this means that your provider will limit your usage to a set amount of data each month. Once you go over that limit, you will either a) have to authorize the purchase of more data transfer allotments or b) automatically be billed a set amount for data transfer allotments that go over that monthly limit.

Example: Let's say my provider is AT&T and in the new setup it allows me a total of 12GB data transfer for the month. This means that for one month, all my Internet activity, which almost always involves data transfer (checking e-mail, visiting websites, downloading images, etc), would count against that 12GB limit. Once I go over 12GB, I would be billed $1.00 for each 1GB over the limit.

While AT&T and Time-Warner Cable have stated that they will be testing such download limits in select markets, some providers are already limiting data transfer. While Starbucks now provides free Wi-Fi access via its new customer loyalty program and uses AT&T as the provider, there is this interesting paragraph in the Terms of Service:

"You agree that all connections to the Internet via ATTIS's connectivity shall be for the limited purposes of accessing electronic mail, operating a basic web browser such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, or downloading files via the 'ftp' protocol typically implemented in web browser programs."

As one article points out, this means you are expected to check e-mail and surf the web but not download streaming video, use Skype to make a phone call, download large photos etc. And, who still uses Netscape Navigator? LOL!

Why are ISPs considering limits all of a sudden? From data gathered by providers such as AT&T and Time Warner, it appears that the top 5% of users are responsible for between 40 - 50% of the data transfers! And, in my opinion, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is also behind this push since many of these "top 5%" users are involved with illegal downloads of music, movies, etc.

So, what will this mean to me as a genea-blogger or genealogist performing on-line research?

First, it is yet to be proven that such limits will be imposed on the home user. AT&T and Time-Warner are performing tests in test markets, and usually a company selects a test market that they know ahead of time will give them positive results. And given the size of AT&T as an ISP, it has the ability to affect the entire market which will allow other ISPs to quickly follow suit.

Second, I would hope they would allow home users to check their data transfers for a month or two. Meaning, allow me to go to a website and see on the 15th of the month how much data I have downloaded. This would give me an idea as to my data transfer habits etc.

Third, if limits are imposed, I along with many others will need to reconsider downloading large databases, PDFs, books, opening e-mails with large attachments etc. And, I won't be clearing out my Internet cache as often (cached pages that haven't changed won't count against your download limit).

I'm interested to hear what other genea-bloggers think about this concept. How might it affect you? Do you think it is fair? Do you think it will work?

Links to recent news article:

AT&T Embraces BitTorrent, May Consider Usage-Based Pricing

Broadband Providers Cap Monthly Usage

Starbucks Wi-Fi Comes with AT&T Limits

Time Warner Cable Tries Metering Internet Use


Jennifer said...

Great post, Thomas, and an interesting proposal. I have been following the issue too, and as someone with sort of libertarian-leanings when it comes to the internet, I feel constricted as a user.

I'm a low bandwidth user. I hardly ever stream anything, don't download large files, or do bitTorrent. I do pay alot to Comcast each month for cable internet, because I like the speed and how fast my download (and even upload) times are. I still feel, however, like this is just one more impingement on the freedom of the internet. Which disturbs me.

Let's face it. The internet is all about the transfer of information in an unimpeded, democratic way. Once we start tampering with that, where will it end?



Thomas MacEntee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks Jennifer

I too am of the Libertarian persuasion when it comes to most things, including having a "free and open" Internet.

I don't want any "taxation" on the Internet in any form. I think that having download limits with the structure that AT&T and others are proposing is, in essence, a tax: it punishes all users for the habits of a very select few. I also think that for many of us 12GB is too low a limit.

And, part of me is curious as to whether or not the ISPs are jumping on the "price raising" bandwagon. I know that an increase in fuel costs is also raising the cost of goods such as food (fuel and water is used in production) as well as plastics (oil), but how much really does this cost the ISPs?

I liken it much to the way cell phone companies have been robbing us blind with early termination fees which the FCC is finally addressing. While I am not a big fan of regulation, there are times when the free market and competition do not force companies to "do the right thing" and they need a little help from our government, the people.

Apple said...

I have no idea what my data transfer per month is but between my husband and I, I bet it is more than 12gb. Add the grandkids playing online games and we probably would be way over. I pay a small fortune to Time Warner now and only have one other option in my area for high speed service. If they go with this I will switch even though the other company would cost more. If enough of us speak with our pocket books they may have to reconsider.

Craig Manson said...

I think this is a potentially dangerous idea that could have consequences that even the ISPs don't want. Imagine what sort of Internet we'd have if visitors didn't download PDFs or stream videos? Well, we've been there--it was called 1993!