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Fight brews over 'metering' of Internet use

Bob Fernandez
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

PHILADELPHIA — Consumers have attacked with a Web site, www.stopthecap.com, and protesters packed two town hall meetings in Upstate New York, where Time Warner Cable Inc. proposed "metering" customers' Internet usage.

The issue may be the first big test in the "net neutrality" debate for the Obama administration.

Opposing the metering, or consumption-based billing, are Rochester-area consumers, including doctors and college students, who say Time Warner Cable's plan would increase monthly bills for those who download movies and other information files on the Internet.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., has vowed to introduce federal legislation to regulate the practice.

Massa said this week in an interview that he was searching for a Republican co-sponsor, adding that "this is one of those things that has universal appeal."

The Democrat faces hardened opposition in Washington from the cable industry, which spends millions of dollars each year on lobbying and is seeking to ward off regulations on the Internet.

"This is bigger than a college kid surfing the Internet," Massa said. "Anything that limits access to the basic Internet is a threat to the economy."

Time Warner Cable, the nation's No. 2 cable-TV company, in March proposed additional charges for heavy Internet users. Instead of a flat rate, customers could choose from several plans: 5 gigabytes for $29.99 a month, 10 gigabytes for $39.99, 20 gigabytes for $49.99, 40 gigabytes for $54.90.

Customers who exceeded their limits would be charged $1 per gigabyte. One gigabyte is roughly equivalent to 200,000 typical e-mails, or 250 song downloads.

Time Warner, based in New York, has delayed implementing the plan after protests, saying consumers need more education on the topic. U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York also spoke to Time Warner Cable in April in support of the opposition.

Time Warner did not return phone calls.

Cable companies claim heavy users degrade the Internet experience for others. Comcast Corp., the nation's largest residential Internet provider, does not meter Internet usage but has an "excessive use" policy. A customer violates that policy by using more than 250 gigabytes a month. After warnings, the customer could lose Internet privileges for a year.

The metering controversy is the second "net neutrality" blowup in the last year. The first snared Comcast, which was criticized and punished in 2008 by the Federal Communications Commission for interfering with Internet traffic.

Comcast told the FCC it managed Internet traffic to relieve congestion. But critics said Comcast targeted programs used for viewing online video and movies, which could be viewed as competition for Comcast's cable TV service. Comcast agreed in 2008 not to target specific programs when managing Internet traffic.

"They are trying to protect their revenue stream, but they shouldn't be wrongheaded about it," said Phillip Dampier, a 42-year-old freelance consumer writer who maintains the stopthecap.com Web site.

Dampier said that stopthecap.com used more than 40 gigabytes of data a month and that he would have to pay extra under Time Warner Cable's metering plan.

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