Monday, April 13, 2009

bandwidth caps and you

it's a series of tubes, you know I will ease my transition from civilian back to blogger by talking about something that seems to be only peripherally related to games – you may have heard some of the talk about Internet service providers, most notably Time Warner, are starting to implement limits to the amount that can be downloaded by their subscribers in a given month. Presently, I can download all the software and stream all the Hulu I want using my Internet connection, but as ISPs implement these new caps, you have to watch the amount you download or get hit with overage charges to the tune of $1 a gigabyte. In this day and age, stream a couple Netflix DVDs and you’ve already downloaded a gigabyte of data. Hoo boy.

They say they’re doing this to compensate for the ever-rising costs of providing service to bandwidth-hungry customers but that is, naturally, a giant load. Like most technology, this stuff gets cheaper as it gets faster, and given that the technology has proliferated all over the planet and the government is pushing to spread it out further, it’s hard to see it getting more expensive to provide. Let’s skip the obvious corporate lines and look at why they’re really doing this and how it effects us.

Time Warner, especially, is doing this to protect its home turf – cable. The quick rise of Youtube and Hulu has very nearly nullified the need for basic cable. I can watch almost any show worth watching for free online, and nearly anything else can be had for cheap via Netflix. Time Warner knows that, like the record industry and Blockbuster Video before it, it is in danger of becoming irrelevant, and like the record industry and Blockbuster Video before it, it is responding by swindling its customers and imposing arbitrary restrictions instead of innovating to compete.

The other reason to impose bandwidth caps is to defeat those damn pirates! They’re always stealing stuff over the Internets and causing trouble! Naturally, the best way to counter them is to restrict everyone’s activity! Or not. Have we forgotten so quickly every botched DRM fiasco that has come up since Napster found its way to those first computers in the late 90s? Punishing everyone for the sins of the few has historically only irritated legitimate customers while the pirates circumvent the punishment and do whatever the hell they want anyway. Once again, the perfectly legitimate customer streaming iTunes music and movies and Hulu videos is going to have to do penance because somebody decided that they wanted to BitTorrent The Matrix. Guys, you should really be trying harder.

It’s easy enough to see how this impacts gamers – buying a 4GB game from Steam? There goes that much of your monthly bandwidth slice. Lord forbid you have a desktop and a laptop to download the game to. What about game demos and online multiplayer? These activities are also bandwidth-intensive, and you’d suck it up quickly if you played regularly. That’s just the stuff we do now that would be impacted! Look ahead to a concept like OnLive – we’re not  entirely convinced it’ll work, but you’d slam up against your teeny tiny bandwidth cap almost instantaneously if you wanted to game in HD.

You can see how troublesome this is going to be if it is allowed to continue.

Luckily, power users across the Internet are up in arms about this, and there’s an off chance they might actually have some impact. For starters, try’s online petiton to Congress on the matter. While I generally think that online petitions are right up there with hipsters and English majors in terms usefulness, this one goes beyond the normal save-my-favorite-tv-show shtick with which they normally concern themselves. It will actually contact your Congressman (or woman!) with your plea, which means that there’s a chance that someone’s intern will skim it over before deleting it.

So! Shake off your apathy for a second, and make some attempt to do something about this. Strike a blow for Net neutrality, and try to keep our tubes uncapped – if they’re allowed to do this unopposed, you can be damn sure these caps will be nearly impossible to get rid of later.