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Got bandwidth? A new program shares it

Brian Livingston discovers a volunteer effort that provides bandwidth to aid the artistically inspired but financially challenged.

    An all-volunteer effort is keeping graphics-intensive noncommercial sites alive by matching them up with Web hosts who truly provide unlimited bandwidth.

    As I reported last week, many Web hosting companies advertise offers to provide unlimited bandwidth to the sites they host even though their contracts actually impose strict caps.

    One host, for instance, changed its online contract to limit Web sites to as little as 2GB of throughput per month. It then billed one customer over $16,000 for a single month of "excess bandwidth" charges.

    That customer, Al Sacui, was able to get his bill cancelled. As an alternative, he now hosts Nosepilot--the home of his animated, multi-megabyte mini-movies--through an arrangement called the Spoke and Axle Project.

    The project's director, Kelly Abbott, searches for Web hosts who have more traffic capacity than they currently need. He then inquires with each one to learn any other technical concerns they have. Finally, he offers noncommercial groups a "mirror" site where their bulky multimedia files can be stored.

    One host that Abbott uses, for example, has plenty of bandwidth to spare but limits his account to a total of 10,000 page views per day. Each page view consumes a small but significant amount of server resources, which are more precious than bandwidth in this particular host's case.

    To work within limitations like these, Abbott arranges for noncommercial groups to post most of their Web pages at an ordinary hosting company, placing only their largest files on the host used by Spoke and Axle. When a Web surfer finds a group's main site and clicks a link to play a multimedia file, the large download only counts as a single page view at the Spoke and Axle host.

    Abbott's volunteerism is a labor of love that primarily supports creators of Macromedia Flash animations and other artistic works. Such multimedia extravaganzas will never earn enough money to pay for excess bandwidth charges. But Abbott and others say the Internet would be a poorer place without these offbeat touches of art.

    "If you're truly contributing to better aesthetics and it's not for profit, then it deserves to be hosted," says Abbott.

    Potential artists' sites and willing Web hosts are screened by Abbott manually, using his own subjective criteria. He says he's received applications from about 300 artists and 10 hosts, and has already paired up 40 sites with three different hosts.

    In order not to overload the delicate relationships Abbott has negotiated, I'm not linking today's column directly to any of the multimedia presentations Spoke and Axle has helped.

    One page on Abbott's site, however, does recommend two hosting companies for their generous bandwidth policies: Intermedia.net and Webcorelabs.

    By opening accounts with these or similar Web hosts, almost anyone could perform their own bandwidth matching to aid the artistically inspired but financially challenged. Gabe Rubin, a designer of complex photographic collages under the name Empirikal, says Spoke and Axle supports works that couldn't otherwise exist on the Net.

    Rubin says of his original ISP, "They made it seem like unlimited bandwidth, but a couple of pages through the contract I found out it wasn't really unlimited."

    Describing himself and other artists, he added, "In most cases, people do this for fun and if they had these outrageous hosting bills you'd see a lot less innovation on the Web."

    Abbott says the term Spoke and Axle refers to the way Web surfers find a hub site they like, then branch out to explore its links in more depth. He started accepting contributions for the cause last week through PayPal and says he's already received a couple of hundred dollars and a donated server.

    That may not seem like much in cyberspace, where billions of dollars are made and lost every day. But the Internet itself started out in a small way, too.

    Brian Livingston's Wired Watchdog column appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.