Are the Days of Unlimited Internet Numbered?

With AT&T’s announcement of capping DSL broadband to 250GB, one must wonder, is the age of unlimited internet ending? After all, the government of Finland has declared that that broadband of 1 Mbps is a human right. If water and electricity are considered human rights, you’ll realize that both are metered. Without paying a high flat-rate, you pay for what you use. Why should the internet be any different? There was a time when electricity was unlimited, but as devices required more current and infrastructure costs increased, metered pricing was necessary.

AT&T recently introduced data caps for its DSL users

Caps, like what AT&T have instituted, are different than metered plans, the latter you pay for how much you use, and the former creates a limit where the charge will be higher.

A world of capped internet is not in the immediate future, but it may change the internet dramatically. In the dial-up age, internet connectivity was slow, so websites were optimized for the 56k connection, and simply loaded text and content.  When broadband became mainstream, websites responded becoming more interactive and multimedia oriented. Websites like Hulu and YouTube would not have attracted viewers, buffering wait times would have been too long. Even file-sharing only grew when peers had always-on unlimited broadband.

If internet usage was capped, how would users and websites respond? Gnutella clients and other peer-to-peer file sharing networks would take the largest hit, as they stream the most amount of content during the nighttime and all year long, whenever ­their computers are idle.

At first, not much would change for most internet users. Caps would likely be around the 250GB to 500GB mark, far more than what most web-surfers require. However, as bandwidth and hard drive technology has advances, the size of files moving through the internet has grown. Operating system patches and upgrades can be as big as 2 GB.  Verizon FiOS now offers 150Mbps download speeds, and Google’s fiber optic network boasting a theoretical 1 Gbps could be headed your way. At that speed, it would only take 250 seconds to fill AT&T’s data cap.  No file is that large today, but downloading large files from the cloud would require a second thought.  1080p HD Videos? 4K-ultra-high-resolution videos?  Bandwidth increases will soon be able to seamlessly support massive videos- one full-length 4K movie could require more than 100 GB.

Such actions taken by ISPs to cap internet usage would also have a large impact on Internet TV, increasing the price of Internet TV compared to cable. Running your TV for a few hours could be 8 GB. A month worth of watching TV for 3 hours every day would near 250 GB.

Such change isn’t likely, but it will be interesting to see how the internet’s content and information will evolve to meet and fit the guidelines of the capped (or even metered) broadband world.