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Will Apple's New iCloud Service Lead To A Consumer-ISP Showdown?

Diagram showing three main types of cloud comp...

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We've been told that "the cloud" is the future of modern computer and data storage, and services such as Apple's iCloud are certainly making a strong case for using the inexpensive resources offered by networked computer systems as a way to securely host personal and business information and applications. Unfortunately, cloud-based services also threaten to expose one of the uglier sides of the Internet service provider industry: bandwidth charges.

The amount of bandwidth consumed by the average Internet user has increased astronomically over the past five years, as more and more individuals sign up for broadband connections that allow for the rapid delivery of large media files to mobile phones, personal computers and laptops. Services like iCloud promise to ramp up this demand for bandwidth even further, but the sad reality for many users is that the cost of using cloud-based networks is likely to be prohibitive due to draconian download and upload limits and charges established by monopolistic ISPs.

Although most wireless Internet providers and some home-based Internet connections currently offer unrestricted uploads and downloads, there are millions more accounts that come with strict limits regarding how much bandwidth can be consumed on a monthly basis. ISPs that charge for bandwidth use argue that they themselves have to pay telecommunications companies for the right to access high capacity data lines, and that they are merely passing on these charges to the end user. They also state that most Internet users rarely approach these established limits, and that surcharges are rare and apply only to special cases.

A switch to cloud-based services, however, could rapidly tilt the playing field so that the majority of users are now using a finite resource on an almost constant basis. How will ISPs react to this sudden shift in downloading habits? Will they continue to enforce their existing policies, or will they be forced to raise prices even higher to account for the extra bandwidth that will undoubtedly be consumed if everyone's hard drive is suddenly hosted remotely on a networked server.

There are no easy answers to the bandwidth problem, an issue that is exacerbated not just by the advent of cloud-based services but also by the growing number of video-on-demand users and Internet video and telecommunications options. If next-generation data networks are not able to deal with a surge in bandwidth demands, and if ISPs are unwilling to change their strict usage policies, a showdown between consumers and network companies could be inevitable.

Author Jason Lancaster writes about Internet issues for InternetServiceProviders.org, a website that helps people find internet service in Connecticut and across the USA

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