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A Bandwidth Limit on Progress

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You don't need us to tell you that the Internet has had a profound effect on the way we all live our lives; you've almost certainly already liked this in Facebook, and re-tweeted it for good measure. And yet here we are in second decade of the 21st century, and the companies providing us with access to what might just be the most important innovation in human history are doing everything they can to keep us locked into an archaic business model that unnecessarily stifles progress. I'm talking of course about bandwidth caps.

The idea of metered access to the Internet is nothing new - in fact for a majority of Britons it's probably been the norm for as long as an Internet connection had been available to them. However, that the practice has been in place for a long time doesn't make it a good one, yet ISPs are fighting ever harder to keep it in place, largely because more customers are starting to realise how restrictive these caps are.

It's hardly surprising that ISPs use bandwidth metering as a service differentiator - it's the only one they have available. Bandwidth use is an easily measureable metric, and it's easy to make a case that a customer using more of it should pay more money than a customer using less. After all, the same model works for other services, such as gas, water and electricity. And why would a customer who only uses 5GB of data a month want to pay for 50GB, 500GB or even an unlimited amount of data? In fact with a 2Mbit line you'd use about 650GB of data a month if downloading constantly so surely even a 250GB limit would be generous.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this stance is that is predicated upon the idea that bandwidth is a finite resource in the same way that gas or water are. But although it's true that the fibre optic cables and switches that carry Internet traffic have a finite capacity, the cost of maintaining that infrastructure is completely independent of the amount of use it is subject to. Faster, more capacious, Internet backbones cost more money up-front, but they incur exactly the same on-going costs: power and maintenance.

There are limits of course; in the UK that means that ADSL2's 24Mbit theoretical maximum is a distant pipe dream for most users, but if you're lucky enough to live in the right area BT or Virgin Media can offer up to a 100Mbit service. However, the effect from the distance from your exchange excepted, any other limit on your Internet access is purely dictated by your ISP.

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