Broadband Data Caps Coming to Your Library?

By Daniel A. Freeman |

Isn't it great to live in a country where you can purchase a broadband Internet connection for your home, business or organization? All you have to do is find a provider (they are available in most parts of the country now), pay them a monthly fee, and you'll have access unlimited, high-speed access to more information than you could ever possibly consume. The best part is that once you're connected as a paying customer, you can use your connection for in any way law-abiding way that you choose. At any time of the day or night, you can download or access as much content as the connection you've purchased will enable you to. Right?

Actually, if a recent story that burning up the technology blogosphere is any indication, those days might be numbered. Time Warner Cable is now expanding implementation of broadband caps in several U.S. markets. This means that for customers in affected areas, the company will be compiling information on the amount of data transferred and billing individuals based on their the volume of data they have used with their connection.

For broadband customers at any level, this news has major implications. If this becomes a trend, or even becomes the standard pricing method for broadband services, customers will have to re-evaluate the way the use their connections or risk financial consequences. A library or any institution with broadband-connected public computers would need to consider restricting what content could be viewed by patrons. Broadband-intensive like those that stream high-quality audio or video are commonly used in many libraries--some have taken steps to reduce usage of these sites because they may reduce speeds for other users on the network or serve as time-wasters in a school environment; not because they fear financial consequences from their use.

Criticism has been swift and sharp. Nate Anderson at Ars Technica, while stating that he is not opposed to curtailing users who are genuinely abusive, feels that Time Warner's logic in this case does not make sense:

Britt's rationale for the change—infrastructure is expensive—is tough to understand. Cable's physical plant has been in the ground for years; even hybrid fiber-coax systems have been widely deployed for some time. Internet access simply runs across the existing network, and one of cable's big advantages over DSL is that speeds can be upgraded cheaply by swapping in new DOCSIS headend gear, with DOCSIS 3.0 the current standard. Compared to what Verizon is doing with fiber and AT&T with its quasi-fiber U-Verse, cable Internet is a bargain (well, for the operators).

What would data caps mean for your library? It's already well-documented that the recent surge in library usage accompanying the economic crisis is
challenging library staff and resources, so what impact would we see from restrictions on Internet usage?

Maybe it isn't fair to jump to conclusions here--we don't know that this trend is necessarily going to spread enough to widely affect libraries around the country. If it did, we don't know what pricing structures would look like, or if there would be potential tax breaks for broadband expenses. One thing is for sure, though--unlimited data access sounds much better than limited data access.