This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2012 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY
Multi-tiered, metered Internet access is a business model nearly identical to that of current utility companies. Imagine if we paid a monthly fee for gas and electric and it didn’t matter how much we used. We would likely use air conditioning more, keep lights on because it’s too tough to flip the switch, and not worry about whether the TV was left on. The same is true about our Internet usage. We don’t think twice about watching a funny video a hundred times or keeping Pandora (News - Alert) running all day instead of turning on a radio. The current system – while very consumer-friendly – does not promote judicious Internet usage.
In 2009, Time Warner (News - Alert) attempted to meter Internet access; however, the company discontinued the effort due to the sheer volume of complaints. While most Internet providers would love to have an official policy and pricing tier in place to do metering, they are deterred by a fear of similar consumer and media backlash. But if Time Warner’s current effort to limit bandwidth succeeds, it will validate the business model and encourage other Internet providers to quickly follow. (Likely other providers already have some unofficial programs in place. Some Comcast (News - Alert) residential customers can attest to having to upgrade to a business account because they used too much bandwidth and risked losing service.)
Since broadband is free once you pay the monthly bill, no one worries about how much gets downloaded. For this reason, many business owners view employee Internet usage at lunch or breaks or even throughout the day as a perk that doesn’t cost the business extra and keeps employees happy. If metered usage is implemented, however, businesses will have to re-think whether Facebook, YouTube (News - Alert) or Pandora truly are justifiable perks or if they need to be blocked at the firewall.
Although we don’t want to rush into policy-making decisions about Internet usage, the likelihood is that multi-tiered, metered Internet access is coming. Therefore, businesses would do well to look ahead and take a few simple steps now to minimize future complications.
First, businesses can talk with employees about what they think is appropriate Internet usage. They should consult with their employees to find out exactly what sites they feel are mission critical and what sites are not work related. Site filters can be applied to get employees used to what types of sites will no longer be accessible in the office. Whatever standards are agreed upon should be put into effect as soon as possible so evaluations can begin as to what works. For example, blocking Facebook (News - Alert) may have an effect on production depending on that particular business’ social media strategy.
Second, businesses could set specific filter-free time blocks during which employees can use the Internet for anything they want (assuming it’s appropriate for the workplace, of course). These blocks could be during lunch or break hours, with the company-wide filter temporarily switched off. A variation of this would be to grant each employee a certain amount of filter-free hours each week and letting them choose the times. That way they’re not completely blocked and can make some choices themselves.
Third, businesses will be forced to re-evaluate meetings that take place over the Internet, like WebEx or Skype sessions. Nowadays, many organizations use these tools simply because they’re easier than leaving one’s desk – even when the attendees are all in the same building. Soon, however, such virtual meetings may no longer be as cost-effective as a phone call or face-to-face meeting. Long-distance travel is certainly an area where these types of tools will continue to prove useful, even with slightly higher costs related to bandwidth.
Multi-tiered, metered Internet access will undoubtedly create new, complicated issues to be dealt with. But its impact can be minimized by taking a few sensible steps. A final caveat is that businesses should know how much bandwidth they currently use, and how much it drops after some of the steps mentioned above are implemented. Most businesses have no idea how much they’re using, but that’s the first step in determining how large of a contract they’ll need to sign in the event that Time Warner’s actions have their anticipated effect.
Tim Ancona is the president and CEO of Ticomix (www.ticomix.com).
Edited by Brooke Neuman