Hey Internet Providers: Data Wants to Be Free, Too!

Last summer, the fastest way to spend $50 in America was to fill up at the pump. This summer, the fastest way to blow through $50 might be streaming videos and music from the Web to your smart phone. From cable companies to wireless providers, the companies that provide the tubes of the Internet are waking up to the sheer amount of data that’s coursing through their networks and cooking up new pricing plans that are based on data usage. Their goal is to bundle together all of your digital devices into one plan and then charge you based according to your data consumption. At a time when most Americans are trying to make do with less, can they really afford to ante up even more money to feed their data habits?


The most talked-about example is Verizon Wireless, which is about to flip the switch on a controversial new “Share Everything” plan that effectively shuts the door on unlimited data by shifting to a new “usage-based” plan. Users pay a connect fee for each smart phone ($40) or tablet ($10) connected to the plan and then another fee for every gigabyte consumed. Paying for 1 GB per month would set you back $50, while paying for 10 GB per month would set you back $100. It’s easy to see how a family with 2.2 kids and several different devices hooked up to the Internet could easily spend $200 a month – and that’s if Junior behaves and doesn’t blow through his data cap.

And it’s not just the wireless carriers that are doing away with “unlimited data” and the all-day data buffet. Broadband Internet providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable are rolling out new pricing schemes that are based around data consumption. As Brian Stelter of the New York Times recently pointed out, customers are being given “usage trackers” that add up all the data consumption in a household and rewards customers if they don’t go over their data cap. If they go over their data cap, they pay $1 for every additional gigabyte.

In addition to being expensive, the problem with usage-based pricing is that it’s complex and just plain confusing to understand what you’re paying for. Americans may know exactly how much gas they’re guzzling using MPG guidelines from automakers, and they may know exactly how much electricity they’re using, thanks to widening awareness about energy consumption – but do they know how much data they’re consuming?

Even digitally savvy consumers are more than a little confused by this transition to usage-based pricing. How much, exactly, is 1 GB? If you talk on the phone for half-an-hour, it’s pretty easy to realize that you’ve just used 30 minutes of free talk time. But what if you’ve been streaming videos on the Web? According to The Washington Post, 2 GB is a lot less than it sounds like – that’s roughly equivalent to streaming 30 minutes of video and five minutes of music and visiting 5 websites each day for a month. Plenty of other apps, too, are emerging as big data hogs – so much so that The Wall Street Journal recently profiled a new genre of apps that will help you track the guilty data hogs on your smart phone and alert you when you’re reaching your data cap.

There’s something fishy going on with all these data tiers and pricing plans. The U.S. Justice Department apparently agrees, and is already conducting an investigation into the cable industry’s treatment of data-intensive content like online video. The concern is that the selective treatment of certain types of Internet traffic could be inherently anti-competitive. Companies like Netflix – which some say accounts for 30% of all Internet traffic during peak viewing hours – would seem to bear the biggest burden of data-usage billing if customers decide that it's simply not worth the money to stream all those high-bandwidth videos. Companies would be dissuaded from offering data-intensive services if customers won't pay for them.

Nearly 30 years ago, Stewart Brand famously remarked, “Information Wants to Be Free.” Internet innovators embraced that concept, coming up with new ideas and innovations that essentially drove down the marginal cost of information on the Web to nearly zero.  Maybe we need a new rallying cry for the data-intensive smart phone era, where entire industries are being built on top of the concept that Americans will have affordable access to blazing-fast Internet connectivity across their digital devices. In 2012, it’s not just information that yearns for freedom -- data wants to be free, too.

image: Binary DIgital Touchscreen / Shutterstock

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
popular

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less