The Campaign to Make Data Rarefied

Recently I was watching live television for a quick morning news fix and between weather and traffic I saw an ad promoting Bright-House Networks Free WiFi access spots. The crux of the ad was promoting that their WiFi was everywhere and it is cheaper to use this service than use your 4G access on your cell plan. I am not disputing the claims in the ad because there is some veracity to the spot that is encouraging subscriptions to Bright House Networks. But where the hell did the unlimited plans go? When the hell did data get so, well, rarefied?

I have an unlimited plan at home. I have an unlimited plan on my phone. Right? That was the word THEY used, not me. I think it is too late to take the thing that I was, and still am being told there is an unlimited amount of, and then, after the fact, “limiting” the thing.

Just in-case you think I am wrong, it’s working… for them.

Comcast, for instance sold unlimited internet. Here is a box that hooks up to the computer. “Use it. Eat all the bits you want – we’ll make more” to paraphrase. Then the letters started going out. I did not personally receive one but I have been told about the 300 GB  per month limit. That may seem like more than you could ever need, but this is the new definition of the word “unlimited” that I have not been previously aware.

Data was rarefied before – in the 1980s and early 1990s. CompuServe was expensive. Dow Jones was expensive.  America On Line was expensive.  AOL is an interesting case – they were an expensive 500 pound gorilla and creator of premium content, that became aggregator of premium content, that became a deliverer of webpages. Then they became just an ISP. Then just host of your email address with a good free IM. Then just some website. Well that was the order that happened for me. Your experience, if you were around, probably looked different. It was like watching the snowball effect, backwards – snatching defeat from the mouth of victory.

Data over dial-up internet became reasonable quickly in the mid to late 1990s. ISP’s were competing hard for your dollar, beating up big ol’ AOL. An ISP’s service could be had for 20 bucks per month. But  ISPs had to keep upgrading their data centers to keep up with peak-time data connections, or just oversell the network. Then came the always-on, unlimited cable-internet and always-on, unlimited DSL with much more speed, bathing you in all the bits you could ever want, for what was only double the price – beating up the dial up ISPs. The advent of ISP began the age of “unlimited.” We did not have to worry about a thing.

But, competition vanished.

No more ISPs. We now have one or two choices for the home and five or six choices in our pockets. Data, which was so plentiful it couldn’t be contained, has now become precious. Or faux-precious.

Over cell and over the line, we are entering a world where we get smacked on the knuckles with a ruler when we go over some measly limit. The encroachment has begun, with warning shots across the bow with warning letters and passive-aggressive text messages.

And there is a huge battle on the horizon. When 4K video, video 4 times the size of HD, starts being offered  in the next few years, suddenly you will constantly be reminded of your 300 GB limit. Or pay extra for your provider’s 4K offering. But that is down the road. The tees are being setup today.

Have we come too far to go back to the days of all you can eat data plans? Not yet. Maybe. This may not be an issue for you. Yet. Until it is 8pm and you are using your Roku and your kids are on the iPad watching Netflix, while somebody is in the office VPNing into their work computer to finish up some last minute bit of something. After which you may get a letter stating that this thing, that you though you had an unlimited amount of, is a thing you ran out of because it has been made rarefied.

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