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AT&T Cuts Off Your Internet Addiction

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New bandwidth restrictions curtail web-surfing.

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The Internet and limits go together like, well, kittens and the guillotine.

Limits on the amount of data subscribers can use each month may soon be a standard feature of Internet usage.

In an effort to combat "bandwidth hogs" who use a lot of network capacity, Internet service providers (ISPs) around the country are exploring new restrictions.

AT&T (T) plans to test them in Reno, Nevada; if successful, may extend the practice to other cities.

In some cases, about 5% of an ISP's subscribers use about 50% of the network's capacity. Adding bandwidth would be expensive, and most users don't require it.

But why not charge a hefty premium to big surfers? That would be similar to watering your lawn in Nevada or Arizona during the summer - sure, you can make your suburban tract house look like an English estate, but it'll cost you.

So far, the limits are tentative, and it isn't clear yet what works and what doesn't.

AT%T will limit downloads to 20 gigabytes (GB) a month for the slowest DSL service, or 768 kilobits per second (kbps). The planned limit increases with speed: Up to 150GB a month at 10mbps.

For most users who e-mail their friends and idly browse around the Internet, the limits won't be a problem. But users of streaming services, such as movies, might easily hit the limit. In general, the proposed limit would allow users to view 25 or 30 high-quality movies a month.

Customers will be able to track their usage via the AT&T website. This is sure to raise cries of "Big Brother is watching" among some, even if Ma Bell is clocking usage, not content. AT&T will notify users when they've reached 80% of their limit. Those who exceed the limit will be charged an extra $1 per GB, but that's hardly enough to restrict the usage of the bandwidth hogs the proposed limits are intended to curb. Tier pricing, with a very expensive second tier for big users, might motivate some to limit their usage.

The limits will apply first to new customers in Reno. Current users will be enrolled in the program if they exceed 150GB per month, regardless of connection speed.

Last month, Comcast (CMCSA) imposed a nationwide limit of 250GB per subscriber. Comcast won't charge users for exceeding the limit, but will yank the service of repeat offenders, a move sure to endear the company to consumers.

Time Warner Cable (TWC) and FairPoint Communications (FRP) are considering limits as low as 5GB a month. Verizon (VZ) says it doesn't plan to limit downloads.

Most users won't even notice the limits, and a little planning should allow those who watch movies or sporting events on the Internet to stay within the proposed bounds.

The proposed limits officially mark the end of the Internet as a scrappy upstart populated by geeks, pioneers and entrepreneurs. The Information Superhighway, to use a term from the Internet's infancy, has now officially joined ExxonMobil, IBM and GE as a dreaded avatar of Big Business.

In short, the innocence of kittens has been slaughtered with casual efficiency.
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