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Opinion: AT&T building underground gigabyte prison cells

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With an abundant stream of news concerning AT&T Inc.’s proposed buyout of T-Mobile USA taking center stage, an impending data usage cap for AT&T Internet customers has nearly been swept under the rug.

But that reality is coming May 2, a date that will effectively spell the end of “open” Internet for AT&T customers.

The company has stated it will institute a data usage cap of 150 gigabytes per month for its residential digital subscriber line users and a cap of 250 gigabytes per month for users of the faster AT&T U-verse service. Users who exceed the cap will receive warnings for their first two offenses, and after the third time, an additional $10 will be added to the customers’ bill for each 50 gigabytes over the bandwidth allowance.

By AT&T’s own admission, only 2 percent of its customers would be affected by the change. AT&T customers can check how much bandwidth they are using by visiting www.myusage.att.com.

While it’s noteworthy that some individual customers can use as much bandwidth as several people in a month’s time, it is not illegal to use the Internet access one has purchased in such a way, provided one is using it for legal means.

Many are likely to be left wondering: Why is this necessary?

AT&T’s answer: “Lopsided usage patterns can cause congestion at certain points in the network, which can slow Internet speeds and interfere with other customers’ access to and use of the network.”

Yet, Wired magazine, a Condé Nast Digital-owned publication, points out that little data has been shown to actually demonstrate the claim that data congestion is a problem for large Internet service providers.

AT&T’s U-verse service, which employs a fiber optic network capable of delivering higher bandwidth than standard networks, will impose a higher cap for its high-speed Internet. Since fiber optic networks are indeed faster, it logically follows that the cap for that service would be higher than that of AT&T’s lower bandwidth service.

But where the situation becomes muddy is when one places U-verse’s television and movie streaming service into the equation. TV shows and movies streamed through the service are not scheduled to fall under AT&T’s bandwidth cap plan, according to technology Web site Engadget, which sourced an AT&T spokesperson. This presents a clear conflict of interest.

The move will create discrimination among users who subscribe to competing TV and movie streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, which can consume massive amounts of bandwidth, especially when viewed in high definition or if multiple family members utilize the services.

For customers who keep AT&T as their ISP, this will create a psychological push for users on the lower-tier DSL service to upgrade to the company’s U-verse system. And hey, while they’re at it, they might as well start using U-verse’s TV/movie streaming service as well. How convenient!

Even for AT&T customers who don’t use high bandwidth services, this should still be a top concern.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, “the ability to share large amounts of information at ever-greater speeds increases productivity, facilitates commerce and drives innovation.”

Capping the amount of bandwidth available to customers will only cause developers to create lower bandwidth productions, thereby squelching innovation, stemming creativity and, ironically, handcuffing Internet commerce.

AT&T has poised itself to gain from the caps, while customers will be subject to restricted Internet plans at the same costs.

It’s easy enough to see why AT&T has kept this largely under wraps – it took me nearly an hour to find anything official from AT&T about it on the Web. While AT&T continues to iron out its proposed T-Mobile acquisition, it is likely the bandwidth cap will come and go unnoticed. That is, until customers start hitting the 150 and 250 gigabyte prison cells.

Springfield Business Journal Web Editor Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.[[In-content Ad]]

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