The company has cut download speeds by about a third for people looking at Usenet newsgroups, a sprawling set of discussion boards that predate the Web itself. Although few people use this system compared with the wider Web, the groups are still used for trading music, software or image files among often tightly knit online communities.
The phone company, based in California, says it is acting to protect the speeds of the rest of its customers, noting that subscribers can still get to the feeds at more than twice the speed of dial-up modems. Regular Web downloads are unchanged.
"This allows us to retain reliable service for all our customers," said Shawn Dainas, a Pacific Bell spokesman.
But it's exactly that message that is rubbing a few Usenet lovers the wrong way.
Pacific Bell has been running a high-profile series of ads that highlight the way rival cable modem technology can slow as more people get online, because many people in a neighborhood share a single high-speed line. Dubbing cable modem surfers "Web hogs," the telephone company's commercials close with a boast for their own technology: "Always fast. Never shared."
"Whether or not this violates the letter of their lengthy service agreement, the speed caps to me obviously violate the spirit of their promises of 'always fast' service," Russell Frazier, a Los Angeles visual effects artist, wrote in an email to CNET News.com. "The frequent 'Web hog' advertisements only fan my irritation, as a current customer, seeing the company so eager to sell more of what they can't deliver now."
The company is quick to note that it's not undermining its guaranteed speed policy. The computers that send the Usenet content to subscribers sit beyond the guaranteed portion of the network. It's the speed of these servers that has been ratcheted down, rather than the speed of the network connections.
If this isn't done, big Usenet files could cause traffic jams in the part of the network where all customers' traffic is mingled, the company says.
Only about 1 percent of subscribers use the Usenet features during peak hours, and many Internet service providers no longer provide free access to the service at all, Pacific Bell notes.
It's not the first time Pacific Bell high-speed surfers have been given a speeding ticket. Late last year, some people who had been getting extra-fast connection speeds saw their download rates drop as the company changed its policies, although speeds remained well above guaranteed rates.
Cable modem subscribers are more wont to see their download speeds drop sharply as more people nearby log on to the networks. Excite@Home has also put hard caps on the speed at which people can upload content to other computers or Web sites, hoping to discourage people from running Web businesses from their home connections.