For Whom the Bandwidth Tolls
Which is a superior billing method: metered or unlimited bandwidth?
Arguably the billing methods and cycles for a service boils down to a management decision, it is an issue of business models, therefore neither one is a priori "good" or "bad."
Oddly enough, this issue has surprisingly found itself in the cross-hairs of how network bandwidth should be charged.On one hand Mike Masnick of TechDirt opines that metering bandwidth would be detrimental to innovative new services; that flat-rates create a superior, more conducive environment for spurring innovation.
On the other, Adam Thierer of TechLiberationFront suggests that network operators should experiment with metering data and perhaps end the "unlimited bandwidth" hole that many telecom firms have dug themselves into. And at the very least, should be legally allowed to try out.
While neither billing method is inherently good or bad, the two sides can still be scrutinized.
All you can eat
Flat-rates may be appealing to certain customers that favor seemingly uncomplicated contracts, however the long-term economic problem consumers are faced with is that someone will end up subsidizing someone else (or in the event that the service is a government enforced monopoly, everyone can suffer from rent-seeking behavior).
In every instance of "unlimited" access to scarce goods, someone must subsidize the activity because the company providing the service cannot survive in the red; otherwise they go bankrupt (see Tragedy of the Commons).
Masnick also suggests that costly transaction costs would be required to implement a metered system, however that metered system already exists. ISPs have to keep a tab on where bandwidth is allocated, because they themselves are charged for its use by an upstream provider. Therefore if an ISP is sending out nastygrams, C&D's, and termination warnings, they already have implemented this system (which is every ISP).
For instance, when I operated Collectrix.com (a webhosting company), we purchased bandwidth from an upstream provider based in Canada. They in turn purchased it wholesale from a larger tier-level provider, and so on. And while capacity is becoming increasingly cheap and readily available (no thanks to the FCC), every webhost, ISP, and on-ramp to the internet must still utilize a system whose capacity is relatively scarce.
Not quite a series of tubes
Arguably the biggest source of confusion is over the fact that this unseen transportation capacity is somehow itself scarce. Unfortunately, even the latest and greatest routers, switches, and optical lines can still only shuffle photons and electrons so fast. Not only is there a speed limit, but also a girth limitation as well (e.g., limits to how much you can send at a time; see latency versus throughput).
And unfortunately for consumers, competition is hindered via regulation.
The Silver Bullet
The most effective, yet most politically unpopular long-term solution for creating more competition and in turn, more capacity, is by deregulating the industry and ending subsidies (i.e., handouts) to incumbents.
In the mean time, the simplest and most streamlined method for telling a service provider how their billing system should work is with your pocket book. Unfortunately, this option can be nonexistent in areas serviced by government protected monopolies.
In the margin
As a side note, one of Masnick's arguments sounds similar to an increasingly popular meme that was also highlighted by Mark Cuban who recently lamented the fact that
The speed of broadband to your home won't increase much more in the next five years than it has in the last five years. That is not enough to work as a platform for new levels of applications that will require much, much higher levels of bandwidth.
However, while Cuban does not delve into how a provider should be required to charge for access, he did tell the House Telecom Committee that government policy could
encourage internet providers to make the necessary investment in fiber optics to significantly increase bandwidth to home users, in line with industrialized nations such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea, and that the economic benefits would eventually outweigh the costs.
[Note: see this detailed critique on South Korea's reported "utopia"]
The main problem with the telecom industry is that the government created the monopolistic problems in the first place. In addition, it was the same government that siphoned billions of dollars of taxpayer-financed subsidies to prop up the backwards business models of incumbents -- all under the guise of "innovation-fostering encouragement" through criminal endeavors like the National Information Initiative.
They are the one institution that consumers should never turn to for aid and one that should never be allowed to give it.