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Why Mark Cuban's only half right about tiered broadband

There's no argument that the Internet is getting clogged up by massive dumps of video--and that's only going to get worse. But there are better ideas than a pay-as-you go approach.

Mark Cuban's onto something important with his frank ruminationson the subject of imposing tiered broadband. It's not a popular argument, but it is one worth consideration.

When it comes to broadband internet access, you can have speed or large volumes of data transfer. You can't have both. One certainty in the broadband world is that for those of us with cable or DSL modems connecting us to the Internet, there is still a finite amount of bandwidth available. When a user consumes a disproportionate and significant amount of bandwidth, it can and will slow down everyone. I hate that.

If the choice is between your being able to download more movies or other video and my getting the best possible speed from my Internet connection, I'm thrilled when you get kicked off. It can't happen soon enough. Speed is what I need. Take all your P2P downloads and get the hell off my Internet.

Cuban, who set league record in NBA fines as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is famous for speaking his mind. And he doesn't mask his irritation with folks who abuse the Internet to download megafiles. His blunt advice: leave now and "take your bit torrent client with you."

I have no sympathy for bandwidth hogs. You all are productivity killers for the rest of us. People who are working, people who are trying to play games, people who are in virtual worlds, people who are networking, people who are just trying to watch a YouTube video or their favorite TV show, you all are the reason why we get incredibly annoyed by slowdowns and buffering.

Maybe he was being flip but Cuban also suggested paying the extra monthly fee to add a DVR to your regular service. "If you want to watch those shows on your laptop, connect the composite video out in your DVR to the composite in on your laptop. Same with movies."

If he set out to strike a nerve, consider it mission accomplished.

Give Cuban credit for shining the spotlight. But is tiered pricing a reasonable--or even workable--proposal? Even as a short-term fix, there's likely to be a mountain of resistance to putting a cap on uber-downloaders. ISPs already face a credibility gap with the public. Who in their right minds still trust the Comcasts of the world to fairly meter a tiered service for heavy users? Besides, the cable companies have already frittered away any lingering good will by gouging customers at each opportunity. (The complaints get even louder in regions where there's only one cable Internet service provider.)

The bigger question that Cuban's post doesn't address is how to create the kind of infrastructure that can handle the load. Every time I watch my page stall out, I can't help but become green with jealousy thinking about Japan and Korea, where 100Mbit sustained connections to the home is no big deal.

Fact is that Bit Torrent is relatively efficient at transferring big chunks of data across the cybernetwork. Maybe even more big content providers should be using it, so people don't seek out less bandwidth-efficient alternatives.

This week Comcast began testing a new way to manage traffic in Chambersburg, Pa. and Warrenton, Va. Later this summer the company will expand the testing to Colorado Springs, Colo. Of course, everyone knows the real solution, though nobody in a position of influence has the cojones to say it out loud: we need a national broadband build out--the likes of which would be on a par with the Eisenhower administration's national highway system. Maybe Barack Obama or John McCain will have something to say before November? Probably not, but one can hope.

I'd like to believe that tiered access would incent the ISPs to invest in fatter pipes. But I don't expect that will happen. This country's perfectly fine with its pathetic 15th ranking out of 30 countries for broadband penetration rates (according to a 2006 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)

So it is that at this this stage of the game, we're reduced to finger-pointing.