Cap the Net…Spoil the Competition? Super Wi-Fi, Broadband Co-Op’s, and Mesh Networks? And Could Google Become the New Word for ‘Internet Service Provider’?

So AT&T is about to join Comcast and a few others by imposing limits on how much wired broadband subscribers can download per month. While 150-250 gigabytes a month isn’t as extreme as smaller caps in other parts of the world, never mind the caps imposed on many wireless broadband subscribers, it renders the idea of unlimited broadband service all but irrelevant here in the U.S. And that’s on top of the fact that U.S. broadband customers pay more for slower broadband than most other industrialized nations.

These same companies also provide cable TV service that isn’t subject to the imposition of limits on how much a subscriber can watch.

When another cable concern, Time Warner, which hasn’t imposed any downloading limits as of yet, is said to have made, from its revenues, 30 times what it spent on providing broadband service to its customers, then on the surface it could be suggested that the caps that service providers are imposing on Internet downloads is a money grab.

True, AT&T suggested that only 2% of its subscribers will be affected by the caps, and the average consumer downloads 18 gigabytes a month. But when everything from cloud computing and storage to Netflix is either already happening or in the process of happening online, that means more gigabytes to download, and more people at risk of breaking the cap and having to pay more, if not get their service cut off.

And it’s also true that there’s an organization called “Stop the Cap” that exists to explain the problems inherent from what is mostly a lack of broadband competition. But if you think you’re paying too much for not-so-fast wired broadband service from your cable or phone company, or if you know of people who can’t get such service, perhaps there may be some solutions that are already springing up, like this from one of the U.S.’ largest cities.

In Houston, Texas, a Rice University graduate student is using recently-approved “white spaces” between television channels to test “Super Wi-Fi” wireless broadband that is receivable within a mile of its source at speeds that could be equal to, if not faster than, most existing wired broadband, as opposed to between 400 and 500 feet and uncertain speeds, with ordinary Wi-Fi.

A woman who lives near the Rice campus has been getting Internet access via ordinary Wi-Fi for free, but with difficulty due to trees, as well as bad weather. But with “Super Wi-Fi,” it’s no problem because the signal can penetrate through brick walls, as well as hold up in bad weather.

In other parts of the U.S., when the government’s efforts at making broadband more available in under-served rural areas haven’t been effective, and when incumbent providers petition legislators to block competition from cities that want to provide better service, as has happened in a few states, and is in the process of happening in North Carolina, why not a non-profit broadband co-operative?

Co-ops were created to provide electricity to rural areas starting in the 1930’s, encouraged by the New Deal during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when most rural areas had no electricity, and it wasn’t affordable for profit-making power companies to build in those areas. Broadband co-operatives are taking a cue from the electrical kind and are springing up all over the U.S., particularly where cable and phone companies can’t afford to invest in wired broadband.

One key instance is in Asheville, North Carolina, where a member-organized cooperative called the Mountain Area Information Network has provided high-speed Internet service with a wireless technology called a “mesh network” that, it says, is receivable for up to 20 miles. At $35 a month for 1-megabyte speeds, however, its cost might only be slightly less, and its speed somewhat slower, than what most cable companies charge for wired broadband.

But could Google become the new word for “Internet service provider” just as it has been the word for “web searching”? At the end of March, 2011, following a year-long campaign that saw more than a 1000 U.S. cities of populations ranging from 50,000 to half a million apply, it awarded a very high-speed, 1 gigabyte-per-second, fiber-optic network to Kansas City, Kansas, just across the state line from the larger and more well-known city of the same name in Missouri.

Google says that when their fiber network is built out during 2012, it’ll be offered at prices they say would be “competitive,” and it might even serve as the kind of wake-up call that would encourage existing profit-making ISP’s to invest in improving their own Internet services rather than keep the customers down with slow service and download caps.

With Google having a higher “enterprise value” [$143.36 billion] than Comcast [$98.12 billion] or TimeWarner Cable [$47.20 billion], they can afford to experiment and perhaps be competitive. It’s an economic fact that competition is good for consumers, but when the same can’t be said for Internet service in many cases, do you think competition should be just as good for that as well?