Jane Wakefield: The man who ate the Internet

Bandwidth hogs are eating up Internet time and costing ISPs money they can ill afford. What is the solution?

AltaVista's managing director Andy Mitchell paid the price for his company's dalliance with unmetered this week as he packed his bags and left for pastures new. Where he will go, when Internet startups are biting the dust almost as regularly as unmetered ISPs, I don't know, but at least he had the courage to speak his mind about BT before he went.

Other ISPs, straining to breaking point at having to subsidise flat rate services while paying BT through the nose, are more lily-livered -- looking around for less powerful scapegoats. And the one that seems to be getting rather a lot of flak at the moment is the poor old "Heavy Internet User" (or HIU as he'll now be known). He -- for surely it could only be males who stay on the Net 24 hours a day -- is increasingly being accused of spoiling the unmetered party for the healthy majority who would never stay online for such unreasonable hours.

What is sticking in unmetered ISPs gullets is the way the HIU is sticking to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Basically he has seen a flaw in the business plan and is determined to exploit it. Those that regard unmetered services as a solid gold example of fools rushing in, please feel free to point out that the business plans of most were about as solid as chocolate teapots and that having a few sad old Netheads taking advantage is only what they deserve.

When they launched, these now almost bankrupt ISPs were shouting from the rooftops about the new unmetered revolution in which you could enjoy 24 hours surfing if you wanted. So what gives them the right to turn around now and say we can't have it?

I have to confess I sympathise with ISPs to a certain extent -- after all who would seriously believe that there were people out there who would regard sitting in front of a computer screen for a WHOLE DAY AND NIGHT as a worthwhile human endeavour.

But some do. Which brings me on to the question of what exactly it is that these HIUs actually do for 24 hours a day. Even the name "Heavy Internet User" conjures up a less than salubrious image, far too closely tied to Heavy Breather than is healthy. Surely none of these bandwidth hogs can lead happy and fulfilled lives, and as to what they are doing online I would say look no farther than the top shelf.

While dotcoms fall and e-firms flounder, Internet porn is happily riding high and for those seeking pleasure from the Net it must come as a certain relief to have the meter turned off during their, erm, exertions.

This theory is confirmed by one man in his forties who actually wrote to a national newspaper claiming that he found unmetered Internet porn to have given him a new lease of life. With a metered ISP he found that regular masturbation was "costing upwards of £3 per shot" while on ntl's completely free service he is now "at it all day".

World Online -- which rather touchingly goes down the pub with its users in an effort to understand what it is that they want -- has made a concerted effort to find out what it is that its own HIUs are doing online for 24 hours a day. The answer, it has found, is both more mundane and more silly than the porn theory. One user claims he needs a 24 hour Webcam focused on his Classic Car collection -- so he can proudly check on the shininess of his knobs, one presumes. Another user bizarrely claims not to know what he was doing with so much Internet time.

Either he is lying or... he's lying.

Whatever it is that the HIU is indulging in, perhaps all ISPs should take a leaf out of World Online's book and take them down the pub once in a while to remind them that there is life beyond the PC. However, what operators are actually considering is a little more harsh. Both World Online and Freeserve are thinking about capping usage on their services specifically to prevent the HIU getting more than his money's worth.

Their argument is that these people are getting thousands of pounds worth of Internet access for under twenty quid a month. Which is, I suppose, a fair point although it should be remembered that the world is full of freeloaders. People who save vouchers and buy broken biscuits and indulge in other seemingly pointless money saving activities are more annoying than harmful, and the world economy has yet to collapse because a few anally retentive citizens are taking advantage.

The problem for ISPs is that they literally can't afford to carry these freeloading surfers. Things are as tight as a gnat's rear end because, in the current telecoms climate, every single one of them is making a loss on its flat rate service. But while penalising HIUs may save them money in the short term, ISPs face a two-fold dilemma in the long term.

Firstly, as breathe proved when it kicked 500 of its users off its service, treating customers in this way is not a particularly good PR exercise. More importantly though, while HIUs may be a pain in the short term, in the long term they are possible pots of gold.

Although it may seem that unmetered services are being offered out of the kindness of ISPs' hearts, the reality is that they are all propping up their narrowband services in the hope of making big bucks from broadband. When it arrives we really will be able to leave our PCs on for 24 hours a day and the heavy users of today may well become the heavy spenders of tomorrow. If ISPs want to make money out of e-commerce -- as most claim they do -- then these Netheads will become utterly invaluable to them. And with broadband probably coming with a pricetag of at least £30 a month it is only the dedicated surfer who will initially be prepared to pay the price.

Ironically, analysts have already pointed out that one of the biggest drivers of broadband will be porn.

Some things -- men mostly -- never change.

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