Internet Access: Flat Fee vs. Pay-Per-Use




Internet Access: Flat Fee vs. Pay-Per-Use


Most Internet users are either not charged to access information, or pay
a low-cost flat fee. The Information SuperHighway, on the other hand, will
likely be based upon a pay-per-use model. On a gross level, one might say that
the payment model for the Internet is closer to that of broadcast (or perhaps
cable) television while the model for the Information SuperHighway is likely to
be more like that of pay-per-view T.V.

"Pay-per-use" environments affect user access habits. "Flat fee"
situations encourage exploration. Users in flat-fee environments navigate
through webs of information and tend to make serendipitous discoveries. "Pay-
per-use" situations give the public the incentive to focus their attention on
what they know they already want, or to look for well-known items previously
recommended by others. In "pay-per-use" environments, people tend to follow more
traditional paths of discovery, and seldom explore totally unexpected avenues.
"Pay-per-use" environments discourage browsing. Imagine how a person\'s reading
habits would change if they had to pay for each article they looked at in a
magazine or newspaper.

Yet many of the most interesting things we learn about or find come from
following unknown routes, bumping into things we weren\'t looking for. (Indeed,
Thomas Kuhn makes the claim that, even in the hard sciences, real breakthroughs
and interesting discoveries only come from following these unconventional routes
[Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1962]).

And people who have to pay each time they use a piece of information are
likely to increasingly rely upon specialists and experts. For example, in a
situation where the reader will have to pay to read each paragraph of background
on Bosnia, s/he is more likely to rely upon State Department summaries instead
of paying to become more generally informed him/herself. And in the 1970s and
1980s the library world learned that the introduction of expensive pay-per-use
databases discouraged individual exploration and introduced the need for
intermediaries who specialized in searching techniques.

Producers vs. Consumers

On the Internet anyone can be an information provider or an information
consumer. On the Information SuperHighway most people will be relegated to the
role of information consumer.

Because services like "movies-on-demand" will drive the technological
development of the Information SuperHighway, movies\' need for high bandwidth
into the home and only narrow bandwidth coming back out will likely dominate.
(see Besser, Howard. "Movies on Demand May Significantly Change the Internet",
Bulletin of the American Association for Information Science, October 1994)
Metaphorically, this will be like a ten-lane highway coming into the home and
only a tiny path leading back out (just wide enough to take a credit card number
or to answer multiple-choice questions).

This kind of asymmetrical design implies that only a limited number of
sites will have the capability of outputting large volumes of bandwidth onto the
Information SuperHighway. If such a configuration becomes prevalent, this is
likely to have several far-reaching results. It will inevitably lead to some
form of gatekeeping. Managers of those sites will control all high-volume
material that can be accessed. And for reasons of scarcity, politics, taste, or
personal/corporate preference, they will make decisions on a regular basis as to
what material will be made accessible and what will not. This kind of model
resembles broadcast or cable television much more so than it does today\'s
Internet.

The scarcity of outbound bandwidth will discourage individuals and small
groups from becoming information producers, and will further solidify their role
as information consumers. "Interactivity" will be defined as responding to
multiple-choice questions and entering credit card numbers onto a keypad. It
should come as no surprise that some of the major players trying to build the
Information SuperHighway are those who introduced televised "home shopping".

Information vs. Entertainment

The telecommunications industry continues to insist that functions such
as entertainment and home shopping will be the driving forces behind the
construction of the Information SuperHighway. Yet, there is a growing body of
evidence that suggests that consumers want more information-related services,
and would be more willing to pay for these than for movies-on-demand, video
games, or home shopping services.

Two surveys published in October 1994 had very similar findings.
According to the Wall Street Journal (Bart Ziegler, "Interactive Options May be
Unwanted, Survey Indicates," Oct. 5, 1994, page B8), a Lou Harris poll found
that "a total of 63% of consumers surveyed said they would be interested in
using their TV or PC to receive health-care information, lists of government
services, phone numbers of businesses and non-profit groups, product reviews and
similar information. In addition, almost three-quarters said they would like to
receive a customized news report,