Will they take away our Internet buffet?
As you cruise the Information Superhighway, what kind of vehicle do you see yourself using?
Are you riding the "dial-up bus" - by far the cheapest option, and the most prudent if you don't go to too many places too often and don't mind making frequent stops along the way.
Or, for movers and shakers, there are "broadband sedans" that you can lease with unlimited-mileage plans to zip you from one Web site to the next.
But at least two Internet service providers are toying with pulling us out of our Web-conveyance comfort zones and forcing us into a "metered Internet," a kind of taxi service that will take us anywhere - but the meter will always be running.
Such is the pilot project started this month by Time Warner Cable in Beaumont, Texas. According to the Associated Press, the Internet provider rewired the town's billing system based on how much data each customer downloads per month ($29.95 for 5 gigabytes, $54.90 for 40 gigabytes). Over that, surfers are charged $1 a gigabyte. AT&T is considering a similar plan.
For a generation, Web surfers have paid for access, buffet-style. Now, it seems ISPs want us to pay for usage, especially those of us who keep going back to the buffet way too many times.
Is pay-as-you-go the way to go?
For most users, a 5GB monthly allowance is more than enough (for now). But if you're a fan of downloadable high-def movies (6GB to 8GB each) and live in Beaumont, you should opt for the 40GB plan.
But since everything pulled or pushed down from the World Wide Web - e-mails, music, software, podcasts, Skype calls, YouTube videos, even pop-up ads - will be applied to your monthly allowance, at some point such a plan adds a shipping and handling charge to anything whizzing past your screen. This makes ironies pile up fast.
For example, while Netflix's actual DVDs-by-mail come and go postage-paid, if you choose to use its new movie-download service, you could accrue an added "freight fee" from your ISP (for the heavy lifting involved in transporting the titles through the Web's series of tubes).
Content providers from Hulu.com to iTunes might find this will wipe out their user base, as it's no fun keeping one eye on your favorite online activity and the other on a meter.
Kevin Leddy, Time Warner Cable's executive vice president, said in the AP article that metered billing is the "fairest" way to deal with uneven usage, since just 5 percent of its users take up half the company's capacity.
Using this logic, anyone with a teen daughter should pay at least four times as much for basic local phone service as the average daughter-less subscriber.
And while 40 gigabytes may seem like a liberal allotment, in a few years, when long-distance Grandma wants to see her granddaughter's dance recital in Quad Holographic HDTV format, ISPs will start to resemble price-gouging Big Oil in a big way.
Digital Slobs, now may be the time to actually e-mail our congressmen (before we're charged extra to do it).
Next week: Ctrl-Alt-Deleting arguments for a metered Web.