Want to see broadband’s future? Check out the airline industry

A New Yorker explainer on why the airlines want to make you suffer has been making the social media rounds. It’s an excellent case study in how the airlines have created a miserable experience for passengers so they can build a profitable business based on charging fees for bags, early boarding and better seats. It’s also just like the playbook big broadband companies are using as they make efforts to charge both consumers and the content companies for access to their pipes.

The parallels between the airlines and the goals and arguments of the broadband industry are too similar. For example, from the New Yorker piece we have this section:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]The airlines, and some economists, argue that the rise of the fee model is good for travellers. You only pay for what you want, and you can therefore save money if you, for instance, don’t mind sitting in middle seats in the back, waiting in line to board, or bringing your own food. That’s why American Airlines calls its fees program “Your Choice” and suggests that it makes the “travel experience even more convenient, cost-effective, flexible and personalized.”[/blockquote]

Meanwhile, if we go to the arguments made by AT&T back in 2011 when it first capped its DSL broadband service at 150 GB per month, you’ll see a similar argument of people paying for what they use in this article from CNN:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Our approach is based on customers’ feedback,” said Mark Siegel, spokesman for AT&T. “They told us that the people who use the most should pay more, and they also told us we should make it easy for them to track their usage. We think our approach addresses these concerns.”
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But as we have argued fairly consistently the danger is that when you start creating these sorts of incentives you also create a reason for the airline or the broadband provider to create a crappy experience so people pay to avoid it. Which is what the New Yorker points out and argues has happened in the airline industry:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]The necessity of degrading basic service provides a partial explanation for the fact that, in the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience. … Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports who worked in the airline industry for many years, studied seat sizes and summarized his findings this way: “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”
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The New Yorker noted that this behavior on the part of the airlines has led to a combined $31.5 billion in income from fees and ancillary payments, which is the fastest-growing source of income for primary airlines. A source of income that the article points out has grown by 1200 percent since 2007.

While the typical consumer might read this and experience rage, I read this and experienced a moment of hope. This article is a gift to anyone concerned about the potential merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable — a merger that would decrease broadband competition and also eliminate the last big broadband provider that hasn’t implemented usage based broadband caps that essentially take us down the airline’s road of paying for a better broadband experience.

It is a likewise a gift to people concerned about the Open Internet rules that the Federal Communications Commission is considering — the so-called network neutrality rules — that could lead to content providers having to pay for faster access to the end consumer.

Under such deals, a concern is that sites that don’t pay get left behind and are less able to compete against larger sites who can afford to pay up for faster access, which is the equivalent of the poor traveler who is stuck checking a bag at the gate while all the passengers who booked economy plus seats board before her toting their luggage and take up the overhead bins.

Don’t want to check that bag or sit squished in the middle with nary a bag of peanuts on that four-hour flight? Pay up and just be grateful you get anywhere at all. Don’t want to suffer through 150 GB data caps, pay up for more and hope that whatever site you want to visit does the same to make sure its bits reach you at a decent rate. And yeah, just be grateful that you get to experience the convenience of streaming as opposed to driving to the Blockbuster Video to rent a movie on disc.

So read that article and rage about the airlines, and then turn that rage into something useful by using it to stop the same thing from happening to your broadband internet. Tell your Congressman how you feel about the Comcast and TWC merger and network neutrality.