There is an ominous trend growing among Internet service providers — that consumers should "pay by the drink" for their Internet usage.

It was only a matter of time before we all paid the price for these idiots running movie-download servers all day and night down the block, but instead of ferreting out those guys (I mean, how hard is it really?) the ISPs of the nation are taking a hard look at bandwidth caps.

That, on its face, would not be so bad, except the implementation of this at first has been hilariously botched. Time Warner, one of the nation's largest cable providers, is testing a 5 gig download limit for some of its customers in Texas. That's 5 gigs in one month. Go over the cap? Fork over a buck a gig. If your teenager goes wild on Limewire, you may want to consider a second mortgage.

For someone checking e-mail and browsing the Web, that's about right. But what about me? I download movies from's Unbox service to my TiVo instead of renting movies. My TiVo frequently goes out to the Internet and downloads all manner of program data in the middle of the night.

And my kids all have their Webkinz. We have to have our Webkinz. I am going to explain an Internet quota when virtual pets are on the line? I think not. I can barely explain to my kids that you can't unplug the little glowy thing with the antenna if you expect to get online.

The real solution from the providers' perspective, of course, is to set a cap but set it so high that only the movie thieves will hit it. Comcast is reportedly considering a 250 gig cap, which would be fine for all but the most aggressive downloaders. But I still think the answer is a little data-mining and not capping everyone. Simply look at the usage stats for the installed base and either warn the most offensive customers, charge them more or cut them loose.

When you look at this from a global perspective, American ISPs are doing such as bad job overall that it is hard to believe they are talking caps, when the speeds they are delivering to the homes are so pitifully slow. The United States ranks 14th in speed, when we were nearly first out of the gate in broadband delivery. If anything, ISPs should be focusing on getting fiber to the home.

What is really going to happen is that large cities will continue to have numerous choices, including some aggressive ISPs that really offer unlimited downloading. That way, people who feel upset by the caps will simply flee to the enlightened ISPs who offer real unlimited downloading.

In smaller cities, you will see the providers eventually turning to caps, and consumers in those cities will find their choices limited — or prices sharply higher. And that is the real shame of this new trend. With the prices of nearly everything else in the computer world dropping, it will be a real shame to see bandwidth go up.

James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer repair firm, and tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is

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