Updated second paragraph below to give credit where credit is due (1/17/07, 10am)
I'm not 100-percent sure what to make of Time Warner's recent announcement that they're about to begin experimenting with a pay-for-what-you-use pricing plan for broadband customers, but I'm pretty sure it ain't good.
According to an AP report this morning (Techmeme's all over it too), the trial will kick off in Beaumont, Texas later this year, and new Time Warner Cable customers will sign up for tiered service plans based on how much they expect to download. [Update: The folks over at Broadband Reports had actually had this story yesterday afternoon.] If I actually thought that Time Warner Cable was going to cut "light" users a serious break, then I would be all for it. But if cable company pricing history is any guide (and for now, that's all we have to go on, as Time Warner hasn't announced pricing yet), I have a sneaking suspicion that this new plan will more likely penalize heavy downloaders than reward light ones.
Of course, Time Warner isn't alone here. I learned the hard way that HughesNet, the satellite-based ISP, sets maximum daily download restrictions for many of its plans. Over Christmas, I unwittingly hosed my mother-in-law's connection while rebuilding a Windows XP system, and installing service packs and patches up the wazoo. Once I hit the daily download maximum, my mother-in-law's high-speed connection was suddenly functioning like a 2400 baud modem. And no amount of groveling with customer service could restore it -- we simply had to sit in the HughesNet penalty box for 24 hours.
For years now, ISPs have offered tiered pricing based on connection speed, but it will be interesting to see if more and more move in this direction of "metered" service. If so, they would seem to be on a collision course with media and tech companies who are counting on those fast, cheap pipes to deliver a rapidly-growing catalog of movie rentals, and the like. If customers suddenly had to pay a lot more for their monthly broadband connections in order to be able to rent movies from iTunes or Netflix, it could put a serious crimp in the online movie and TV delivery business.