Monday, April 20, 1998

Week of 04/20/1998

Limiting The Unlimited
Unlimited access? What were they thinking?
- by David Matthews 2

I once knew this guy who opened up an all-you-can-eat restaurant. For $3.75 per person, you could belly up to the buffet and get some of the best southern food in the area and all the soda or sweet tea you wanted. Business was good for him, at least for the first few weeks.

Within two months, he had to close his doors and declare bankruptcy. It seemed news of his "bottomless plate" buffet reached a rather large family.. in girth and in numbers. They literally ate him out of business.

The despair seen in that bankrupt restaurant owner when he saw that extremely oversized family of ten show up.. with their relatives.. is similar to the despair I now hear from every Internet Service Provider that offers unlimited access and are now regretting that decision.

Back around the end of 1996, America Online changed their pricing plan from $9.95 a month for ten hours to $19.95 a month for unlimited access. AOL’s changes came in response to the service providers who offered similar unlimited access. They thought it was simply being competitive in a wave of rising competition.

But there was something AOL didn’t think about - all those users who used to watch their time now took full advantage of unlimited access. They kept the servers occupied, and the lines busy. AOL lacked the hardware to handle all those users, and the new subscribers from their infamous, aggressive advertising campaign, and ended up knee-deep in lawsuits and legal inquiries by various state attorney generals.

Now that same rumbling is being heard by some of those service providers.

In May, AT&T, one of the first providers to offer unlimited access, will go back on that offer, and charge only $19.95 for the first 150 hours per month, and 99 cents per additional hour. This decision, they say, is because of the "abuse" of users who are staying connected 24-7.

I just have one question to the original bellheads: What were they thinking when they first offered unlimited access with a flat rate?

Much like that restaurant owner watching the oversized family of ten show up on a regular basis, providers like AT&T probably never took into consideration that people might take the word "unlimited" literally. They didn’t think about it, because they were thinking about how much money they would make getting people signed up. They never considered what would happen when those users remained online as long as possible.

Make no mistake, offering unlimited access has changed the scope of the Internet. The whole concept of "push" technology would never have been considered if not for unlimited access. Information-gathering software like PointCast and the Microsoft Investment Ticker would have never existed without the means to gather that information at any time.

Microsoft has advertised with Internet Explorer 4, and the future release of Windows 98, that users would not be able to tell the difference between information their hard drive and information gathered from the Internet. I don’t know about anyone else, but if that time starts getting costly, I certainly would want to know when I’m online!

Ironically, by offering unlimited access, it has resulted in the boom of additional phone lines. That means more money to the phone companies, the very groups who are complaining about all the additional service. Here in the northern Georgia area, the 404 area codes has been joined by 770, and now includes a third area code, all in the span of five years. Callers now have to dial all ten digits instead of just seven, even if the number being called is just across the street. This explosion of communication wouldn’t have existed without the demand provided by things like unlimited access to the Internet.

When you do the math, the 150 hours per month that AT&T would now define as "unlimited" is actually about 5 hours a day. I realize that may be a lot of time for people, but consider some of the things users do in the course of that day: Checking the news, taking part in chat events, reading E-mail, reading newsgroup messages (especially if you subscribe to a large newsgroup), listening to streaming music or live radio broadcasts from around the world, checking your stocks, downloading software, doing extensive searches, playing interactive network games like Quake.. All of these things, while not all handled every day, can certainly deplete those 5 hours rather quickly, never mind when those events are spaced out in the course of the day!

What’s worse has to be the characterizations of those who take up that offer for unlimited access seriously. They’re often referred to by the media as "net hogs." Hogging presumes that people weren’t invited to spend as much time as desired.

Let’s go back to the buffet analogy. Walk up to a buffet table and you’ll know how much food is out there and what kind is available. You know that if you take all the food at the serving table, that it might be a while before anyone else will have some. You know that if you camp out at the buffet table with a fork and spoon, that would be considered hogging.

But online, you never know how big that buffet table is. You’re on your computer at home, dialing into a server that could be hundreds of miles away. You don’t know if your provider can handle five lines or fifty lines or five thousand. How are you to know that they can’t handle a few users who get second phone lines just to stay online 24-7? You’re just told that it’s $19.95 a month to stay online as long as you want.

Worse yet, this is a demonstration that perhaps the old bellheads aren’t really prepared for the changes in technology. Instead of planning ahead, they are trying desperately hard to maintain the status quo, milking our continued dependency of "their" phone lines (paid for at least in part by our tax monies) in a continuing government-regulated limited monopoly.

The eventual trend of the Internet is not limited time online, but rather being online indefinitely for things like television programming, online mail, research, home security.. This is the kind of future predicted by leading software and network visionaries. These are the people who are looking ahead, not just where they’re at right now like AT&T is apparently doing.

In short, this is a bonehead decision by the bellheads. Instead of spending time fretting about those long-term users, they should follow the lead of AOL and expand their systems to cover the additional need. Then, if they need to explain a modest hike in monthly fees to offset the costs, they can point to those 24-7 users as an explanation that would be at least honest and credible.

The moral of the lesson is simple: Don’t advertise what you can’t back up!

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