Is the End of Unlimited Internet Near?

He says Comcast does not provide a meter tool because free and fee-based meter tools are readily available and not necessary for 99 percent of their consumers.

Although Douglas says that the company is evaluating usage-based billing models that resemble Time Warner's trial program, he stressed that this cap is different.

"This is about protecting the 99 percent of people who don't use a massive amount of bandwidth from the small percentage that does use an extreme amount," he said.

But industry experts observe that Internet technology is advancing rapidly and the lack of good data make it difficult to prepare for the future.

"Today's bandwidth hog is tomorrow's average user," said Fred Von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties group. If a cap had been imposed on the top 10 percent of Internet users in 1997, many Internet innovations of today would likely not exist, he said.

While Von Lohmann said that no one has the right to unlimited Internet access, developments in the industry need to be monitored.

"This is not an emergency, but it is something that needs to be carefully watched," he said.

Like Malik, Von Lohmann said the industry would benefit from increased transparency, in terms of providing data regarding customers' Internet usage. Another major issue he flagged is competition.

Comcast sells high-definition video through other parts of its business off-line. These Internet usage limits essentially handicap competitors who want to deliver similar products online, he said.

Doug Williams, an analyst with media research firm Jupiter Research, told that cable operators, such as Comcast, have been and will continue to be first movers in imposing bandwidth caps because they have a more immediate need to do so.

Unlike telephone companies that also provide Internet service, cable operators use a shared distribution network. Extremely heavy use by a single connection has a negative and direct impact on other users in that area, he said.

As cable operators continue to impose these caps, telephone companies will be paying close attention to the customer response to determine if they should move in the same direction.

Williams says that for customers accustomed to a world of unlimited Internet access, these caps might not be welcome changes. As cell phone plans, long-distance telephone packages and other services move to flat-rate, unlimited approaches, this is a step in the opposite direction, he said.

"I think that's going to be something that consumers are not going to be particularly happy about. But they might not have many options for recourse," he said. "That's not going to make people happy -- especially in this economic climate."

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