As details emerge about the Federal Communications Commission's controversial proposal for regulating Internet providers, a provision that would allow companies to bill customers for how much they surf the Web is drawing special scrutiny.
Analysts say pay-as-you-go Net access could put the brakes on the burgeoning online video industry, handing a victory to cable and satellite TV providers.
The practice is legal but had been discouraged by the FCC and by protests from consumer groups. But wireless companies are moving rapidly in that direction. All major cell phone providers offer subscribers tiered data plans for Net service. AT&T doesn't offer flat-rate wireless plans for new customers.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said last week his "net-neutrality" proposal would generally prohibit broadband service providers from tampering with Internet traffic, but he added he is open to new billing models that charge by how much data a user consumes.
Public interest groups say that trend will lead to a widening gap in Internet use in which the wealthiest would have the greatest access. It could place limits on how much consumers use Web video, which eats up an enormous amount of bandwidth and could carry higher costs under a tiered pricing plan.
"The question is how this will be enforced, because it has the potential to do a lot of harm," said Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge, a Washington D.C.-based digital advocacy group.
By blessing tiered pricing, Genachowski said he wanted to strike a balance between consumer protection and promoting "network investment and efficient use of networks, including measures to match price to cost such as usage-based pricing."
An FCC official said in a statement it would be a "cop on the beat [for] arbitrary, anti-consumer or anti-competitive tiered pricing plans."
The FCC will vote Dec. 21 on the proposal, which could tilt fortunes toward cable and telecom companies battling to keep users from abandoning paid television services for new Internet options.