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Last Updated: Monday, 15 September, 2003, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Goodbye to a flat rate for broadband?
DOT.LIFE - how technology changes us
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

The days of paying a flat rate for broadband access may soon be gone - we could be charged according to what we download, to ease congestion online and share bandwidth more fairly.

Internet user
Some use a lot; others a little
Ever been out to dinner with a big group of people, only to feel cheated when everyone splits the bill equally?

The way Britons pay for broadband internet access in the UK is remarkably similar - customers who only log on to pick up e-mails pay the same as those with big appetites for fat downloads. But this could change soon.

Broadband is more widely available than ever, with BT announcing 80% of the UK able to get it if they want it. As such, competition between service providers has forced down subscription prices.

Many of those who sign up are attracted by peer-to-peer file-swapping, and downloading or streaming large files of video and music.

Problem is, the broadband pipes are getting crowded. As one user downloads their e-mails, another next-door might be trying to watch the latest Kylie video. The resulting congestion makes the broadband experience less satisfactory for both.

Congestion charge

Between 60 and 80% of bandwidth is being eaten up by a fraction of customers - who are mainly engaged in peer-to-peer activity - and, according to the industry, the rest are penalised because of the heavy users sharing the network.

Heavy users are using so much of the network that another who wants to talk to someone online suffers
Milind Gadekar
Some organisations have tried imposing daily limits on how much people can download, but this has not proved popular.

Now service providers are testing ways to tighten the bandwidth belt. Many are trialling technology that helps manage traffic on the network and also shows who is using broadband, what for and when.

"The last four or five years has been about building this infrastructure of a high-speed network, providing a dumb access," says Milind Gadekar, vice-president of P-Cube, whose monitoring system is being tested by service providers in Europe.

Now, he says, service providers need to make their networks "intelligent" so they can identify users and the applications used. This will eventually allow them to offer priority access for some services and so avoid traffic jams.

Pay for what's used

This also opens the way for flat rates to be replaced by a tiered price list depending on usage.

Traffic jams
Congestion is a problem online as on the roads
It sounds like a good idea, as no-one wants to pay over the odds for unused services.

"All consumers are not equal," says Mr Gadekar. "You have some of the heavy users who are using so much of the network that a user who wants to do a simple video stream or talk to someone over the internet suffers.

"If my mum only does web and e-mail and wants her high-speed connection to only do that, she doesn't care if her streaming video is slow."

So with the technology, service providers could start to offer people like Mrs Gadekar cheap broadband access - for, perhaps, 20 a month, which competes with dial-up access - which provides fast e-mail and slow streaming.

Fast and slow

The idea is that bandwidth can be divided up more sensibly so each user gets what they want. Critics say this is one way to lure customers into signing up for a level of access they rarely use.

Online game
Too slow to play?
What it does mean is that how we pay for broadband could change, such as a bandwidth on demand model, says Celine Bak, of Bridgewater Systems, another supplier of this technology.

Online gamers, for instance, could pay to boost their bandwidth speed from 512kbps to 3mbps for the duration of the game. And those working from home could automatically up it for a set period each day, or on an ad hoc basis.

What could be difficult is to persuade new customers to plan what they want to do on the web. At least in the short-term, perhaps many would prefer to split the bill evenly while they sample what is on offer.


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