Time was–in the musty era before even the commercial internet was generally available–an upstart America Online would charge you depending on how much time you spent crawling the internet (surfing came later). Ah, memories of spending interminable minutes watching a two-color AOL logo gradually load on your computer screen.

We’ve come a long way since those slow old days. Under the newly updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), for example, the Bush administration now can monitor your online activities unobtrusively and at blazing speeds. You’d think, therefore, we’d all be safe, secure, and completely content.

But oh, no.

Now, certain internet service providers (ISPs) want to (a) meter your access speed, (b) pinch down your internet channel if you transfer fat files, and (c) charge you according to how much you use the internet. (For more on that last bright idea, watch our July newscast, eSN TechWatch, at http://www.eschoolnews.com/tw708.)

AOL founder Steve Case must be smiling.

The Associated Press revealed last fall that Comcast was secretly throttling or blocking file transfers that used BitTorrent, an application widely employed for peer-to-peer file exchanges (see "Comcast to stop hampering file sharing"). Some experts contend all ISPs do it and that Comcast just got caught.

Be that as it may, Kevin J. Martin, chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), last week called on his agency to punish Comcast for controlling the access speeds of its customers (see "FCC chief says Comcast violated internet rules"). Comcast says it did no such thing, and besides the FCC lacks jurisdiction to stop it. The full panel of commissioners is scheduled to take up the matter next month.

Cable companies say they want to meter your internet usage just to make sure a few thoughtless bandwidth hogs don’t bog down the internet. Trouble is, under tests being run by Comcast and Time Warner in several pilot communities, the companies won’t tell anyone how much usage would be required to have one’s connection impaired or how much slower it would get.

Some mildly skeptical souls wonder if the real objective of the cable companies isn’t to thwart internet video transfers that undermine their cable TV interests. (Already young people seem just as happy to watch their video online as on cable TV; but more on that in a moment.) The genuine cynics say the companies just want to be sure to have plenty of bandwidth available to monitor communications under FISA.

The Federation of American Scientists released what it says is a "Comcast Handbook for Law Enforcement", which describes a start-up fee of $1,000 to launch a FISA "intercept service," followed by a continuing charge of $750 per month. (How much Comcast stands to earn by such means is unknown, of course, because FISA-intercept requests are stamped Top Secret.) 

In any case, the urge to throttle our bandwidth comes just as major ed-tech organizations are mounting a campaign to increase bandwidth to schools and colleges. As our June 25 story "SETDA urges schools to boost bandwidth" spells out, high-speed internet access has a direct correlation to instructional resources and, therefore, student achievement.

Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Higher student achievement makes our nation stronger, safer, and more able to compete in the global economy.

Turns out those positive results could be throttled right along with our bandwidth. A new study by audience-measurement firm Nielsen Online suggests bandwidth metering will have a disproportionate and adverse impact on school-age youngsters.

That’s because, among all consumers, young people are the ones who use the largest share of bandwidth. In one recent month, kids consumed more video streams than did persons over 18, Nielsen reported, and spent more time watching online video from home. (Nielsen released no statistics on online video viewing at school.)

Said Nielsen Online: "Kids 2-11 viewed an average of 51 streams and 118 minutes of online video per person during the month, while [youngsters] 12-17 viewed an average of 74 streams and 132 minutes of online video." Persons over 18, by contrast, watched on average 44 video streams and 99 minutes of online video per month, the study found.

If cable companies and telecoms are allowed to throttle access or to charge customers for internet use by the binary digit (a retrograde idea, if I ever heard one), then Congress, the FCC, or the companies themselves at the very least should create a "fair use" exemption for bandwidth deployed for educational purposes by schools and colleges.

As it stands, a confluence of complicated and arcane interests seem to be trending toward the artificial throttling of access to the resources of the internet. At a time when we should be looking forward to more bandwidth, greater use of internet resources for education, and a national commitment to economical high-speed internet for schools and colleges, big-money communications companies seem determined to head in exactly the opposite direction–at least in America. 

Forward to the past? At this rate, we’re going to be looking very backward, indeed.