Time Warner To Test Pay-Per-Download Plan

In a move that could reshape the debate about net neutrality, Time Warner will start charging some broadband users access fees based on how much they download each month, rather than assessing a fixed fee unlimited service.

The company Thursday said it planned to start testing the new pricing system this year as part of an effort to manage traffic. "We want the network to maximize returns for all of our customers," said spokesman Alex Dudley, adding that a small number of users currently consume a disproportionate share of bandwidth. "Ninety-five percent of our users would not be the extreme users who are driving this."

Once the test starts, new customers will be offered a choice of four plans that allow them to download set amounts each month--5, 10, 20 or 40 Gigabytes. As with cell phone service packages, those who go over their allotment will be charged extra. Time Warner hasn't yet determined the price of each tier. The test will start later this year with new subscribers in Beaumont, Tex.

Some advocates for net neutrality--or the principle that Internet service providers should treat traffic equally--said Time Warner's plan sounds like a better approach to traffic management than some other alternatives.

"It's entirely fair and appropriate for carriers who choose to do so to vary their charges to users based on how much those users are consuming," said David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "The key is to be agnostic as to what the bandwidth is being used for."

Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn (no relation to David Sohn) also supported the decision. "There are neutral ways to manage the network, this is a good one," she said.

By contrast, Comcast has drawn fire from advocates for slowing down visits to peer-to-peer sites in what it says is an attempt to manage traffic on its network. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating complaints by Public Knowledge and others that the company violates net neutrality principles by treating traffic to BitTorrent and other bandwidth-hungry peer-to-peer sites differently than traffic to other Web sites.

While net neutrality advocates say that Time Warner's metering plan is preferable to interfering with traffic to some sites, some are also afraid that moving away from unlimited pricing will discourage people from using the Web.

"Telling consumers they must choose between blocking and metered pricing is a worrying development," Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, said in a statement. "The best answer to any capacity crunch is to build the kind of high-capacity networks available in the world's leading broadband nations."

Public Knowledge's Sohn agreed that any long-term solution to bandwidth problems requires improving the infrastructure. "The ultimate goal has got to be a fatter pipe," Gigi Sohn said.

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