Bolen: Putting a cap on innovation

Recently, AT&T announced that it would be implementing a monthly cap on its landline DSL and U-Verse high-speed Internet services. Much like phone data plans, it will charge overage fees when users exceed a set data limit for the month, while their services, such as the data-intensive Netflix clone, U-Verse TV, will not count toward this limit. Although the move has been met with anger by some users, AT&T defends the decision, saying that the new caps will only affect the 2 percent of subscribers who use “a disproportionate amount of bandwidth.” Here at Yale, where few students have to pay for Internet and even fewer fall into that 2 percent, it’s easy to just say, “Why should I care?” Unfortunately, this is one issue we should all be worried about.

The argument against AT&T’s new bandwidth caps centers on network neutrality, the idea that your Internet Service Provider should let you access all content in a fair and unhindered way. Essentially, it means your ISP should be your vehicle for surfing the Internet, not your tour guide. By making some services, like Netflix, more expensive, AT&T is directing traffic away from these sites and toward their own preferred Web services. How high the data cap is, or how hard it would be to go over, is immaterial. Simply knowing that you have a cap and that the AT&T services won’t count toward it will be enough to steer many people away from services like Netflix and toward AT&T’s own streaming media service.

But the damage caused by bandwidth caps does not stop there. The real problem surfaces when new sites come along which require even more bandwidth than the current data hogs like Netflix and Hulu. When the bandwidth use of an average household increases, suddenly that huge cap begins to seem positively tiny. Granted, if the service becomes popular, AT&T may raise its caps or come out with its own cap-free version of it, but it’s more likely that the new service would never catch on at all.

To explain why this is, consider a hypothetical situation in which these caps were in place earlier this decade, back before YouTube existed. Of course, Internet use back then was much less data-intensive, as most sites were text- and image-based, so the hard cap would have been much lower as well. Now YouTube comes around, and suddenly bandwidth usage skyrockets every time someone watches a new video. With their Internet capped, many people begin to fear that accessing the site is going to put them over their monthly limit, and they decide it’s not worth watching some silly video of a cat playing a keyboard. Sure, a small group of people still use the site, but keyboard cat may never even be posted. People don’t see a reason to post new content there, and in the end no one sees the point of going there at all. Simply put, YouTube just never catches on. The telecom companies, of course, wouldn’t notice one more business going down the drain, and even if they did they’d just cite it as another example of the fickle desires of American consumers.

The end result, of course, is that YouTube never becomes the powerhouse of Internet culture it is today, and we miss out on one of the defining cultural features of our generation. Then again, maybe YouTube was a good enough idea that it still would have become popular, and AT&T would have increased its bandwidth limits accordingly. But what happens when the next high-bandwidth software comes along? Would Netflix even have offered streaming video? Would it have become as popular if people worried about going over their data limit? What about video chatting, or cloud computing? What seemingly far-fetched ideas would have just gone unnoticed because the right people never saw their potential?

In the end, the reason people are so worked up over this — why they see bandwidth caps as such a bad thing — is because they really are. Telecom companies are doing this knowing full well that it will stifle electronic innovation; in fact to them it’s a bonus, because at the end of the day, less competition means more money for AT&T. I may not be about to go protest outside their building, but this does go at the top of a long list of reasons that I won’t be getting AT&T service any time soon.

Chris Bolen is a third-year graduate student in the Department of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics.

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