Data Caps Could Cut Artists off from the Cloud

Published:  July 26, 2011

Cross-posted from the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC)

The case of André Vrignaud highlights the serious issues that artists, photographers and musicians might face as both data caps and cloud computing become increasingly common—and contradictory. Vrignaud, writing under the name Oxymandias, earlier this month outlined how Comcast had cut off his Internet connection for a year after he exceeded their monthly usage cap of 250 GB for back to back months.

Such usage might seem extravagant for most Internet users. Comcast, for example, reports that their typical high-speed Internet customer uses between 4 and 6 GB a month. For those who cut more deeply into their allotment, streaming video, music and other entertainment may be the most likely culprit. According to one estimate, Netflix streaming alone accounts for nearly 30 percent of all evening downstream traffic on wireline networks in North America, with the average Netflix customer burning through more than 1 GB of data a day.

Certainly, some of that was to blame in Vrignaud’s case. He writes that he and his roommates “stream Netflix HD movies and Pandora music incessantly to multiple devices in the home,” as well as having an open-access wireless network that other people could use. But the kicker, according to Vrignaud, wasn’t what he was downloading, but rather what he was uploading—as a “photographer and audiophile,” he had sent gigabytes of high-fidelity music, RAW-format pictures and other files to remote servers, to provide mobile access to files but more importantly to serve as off-site backup. Comcast’s and many other data caps typically count both uploaded and downloaded data.

Remote storage is just one of a host of “cloud” services that have become an increasingly important part of the Web as high-speed Internet becomes more ubiquitous and more of our lives becomes tied to the digital economy. Data storage in dedicated, distributed centers not only protects data from a failure of a user’s device, but also from natural disasters such as the earthquake that crippled many businesses in Christchurch, New Zealand. It allows for users to seamlessly access critical files at home, on the go, and in the workplace, making telecommuting and tele-work possible and dramatically increasing both personal and business productivity.

For creative types working in digital formats, the cloud may be particularly important and useful. Like many other businesses, the livelihood of artists is tied to their intellectual property, making secure, dedicated backup of files vital. Typically, such backups cause minimal congestion to networks, since they occur at night when usage is low. Artists will also likely rely heavily on remote services—not only using file depositories and cloud-based creative software to facilitate large collaborative projects, but also by providing illustration, post-production, and other specialized services to far-off businesses. In the future, independent artists might even provide streaming entertainment services of their own.

But just as cloud computing has become more common, so too have data caps that make them less useful. Citing congestion, both wireline and wireless service providers have clamped down on data allotments for their residential customers, even as much of the country lacks access to fast, competitive broadband service. Of the major mobile service providers, for instance, only Sprint provides true unlimited data service, with AT&T and Verizon charging for tiers of use and T-Mobile throttling down user speeds after they reach their monthly caps. Meanwhile, following the lead of the major cable companies, AT&T has placed caps on its DSL broadband service and Verizon is seriously considering them as a component of its FiOS plans.

Artists should take seriously the threats that data caps might pose for their livelihoods, especially as improving technology and decreasing storage costs have led to larger and larger file sizes—high-definition video, for instance, can consist of tens of gigabytes of data. The current market for broadband is uncompetitive; consequently, even as broadband speeds have increased slightly, caps on usage have only worsened. Moreover, many small and emerging artists may have no access to business-grade connections with less stringent caps—even if they could afford them.

The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, Public Knowledge, and the Future of Music Coalition have called for a formal investigation of data caps by the FCC and much greater transparency about how they work. We hope the artist community will join us in asking the FCC and Congress to increase scrutiny on broadband providers decisions to impose data caps on users.

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