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Metering The Internet An Old Idea

David A. Utter
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-02-03

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A pay as you go proposal for Internet access being discussed in the smoke-filled rooms of the telecoms and cable companies mirrors a prediction by Bob Metcalfe not long after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

An excellent column by The Nation's Jeff Chester opens with a warning about an Internet future dominated by the telco and cable networks, who have no desire to provide a "dumb pipe" and be paid accordingly for reliable service like an energy utility.

Those companies want to see everyone, end-users and content providers, pay for everything they do online. If it travels on their pipes, the communications powers want a cut. Chester claims money would win out online, as it does in every other media outlet:

According to white papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and telecommunications industries, those with the deepest pockets--corporations, special-interest groups and major advertisers--would get preferred treatment. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out.

It's a shocking proposal, but not a new proposal. Ethernet inventor and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe began warning about this possibility as far back as February 1997. A Metcalfe interview that appeared in WebServer Magazine eerily foreshadowed Chester's observations about the Telecommunications Act:

"Many people thought the Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1996 would help solve the problem by forcing telephone companies to compete with cable companies in offering new services to consumers. But it didn't. It's made it worse. Now the telcos, instead of trying to compete with each other, are trying to buy each other up."

Now, it must be mentioned that Metcalfe favors metering the Internet, especially email. He noted what the email problem would look like if postal mail were free:

"My position is that the current economics of the Internet are broken and they need to be fixed, as opposed to everyone else ‘getting it.' Now here's that very problem - junk mail. The answer is fix the economics so it is not as economic to send to 8 million as it is to send to 1 million. Thank god we have postage on the U.S. postal service. If we didn't, the junk mail would be higher than here!" he says, pointing to his belt.

And metering the Internet was as unpopular a concept then as it is now. Metcalfe further talked about this in his former column in InfoWorld magazine in 1998, and he makes a point that has been championed by people like Mark Cuban regarding content providers paying for a two-tiered structure. Indeed, Metcalfe may have made the most important argument in favor of a pay as you go Internet:

Many of our Internet bills will be paid by advertisers and governments, but with the right infrastructure, we'll be paying more of our own bills. We won't want an Internet in which we get only that for which advertisers and governments are willing to pay.


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About the Author:
David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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