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McSlarrow: Free Press Petition Drive for Time Warner Investigation a "Publicity Stunt"

Kyle McSlarrow has branded as a "publicity stunt" Free Press's petition drive for a congressional investigation into Time Warner Cable's plans to test consumption-based billing for high-speed Internet.

In a blog posting, McSlarrow argues that Congress has enough real problems to deal with without spending time on "fictional ones."

Free Press says Time Warner is trying to "force customers to pay a steep Internet penalty for exceeding an absurdly low monthly limit."

McSlarrow, whose membership includes Time Warner Cable, argues that the company is simply conducting limited, careful and transparent tests of a new pricing model that "may serve the vast majority of their customers better by reflecting the growing reality that some consumers utilize far more high speed bandwidth than others."

Cable and telephone companies efforts to deal with that reality has been at the crux of the debate over network neutrality and when network management becomes discrimination in violation of either FCC open access principles.

That issue, which has never gone away, is back on a front burner as the government decides what kind of access conditions to apply to billions of dollars in broadband rollout grants.Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott countered that while it was true that metered pricing was only in the trial phase, he saw expansion of that trial to be an important change. "When a major national Internet service provider expands a practice from a small trial to a big trial, it's a serious enterprise. And we can reasonably expect it is the tip of the iceberg," he said in an online response.

He suggested that iceberg could threaten to sink cable's online video competitors. "As the online video market has emerged, we have increasingly seen numerous reports of cable operators and content providers concerned about the possibility that consumers will one day opt to cancel cable and watch TV online," he said, adding: "Asking Congress for an inquiry is simply raising some red flags about a plan that has many troubling questions surrounding it."

McSlarrow had pointed out that Free Press itself had not opposed metering, but Scott said that was only as an alternative to outright blocking."As for whether metering is fair," he says, "it can be. But that is a question of whether the rates are fair in relation to the costs -- the same costs that TWC refuses to disclose."

Looking below the surface of the TWC test, Scott said Free Press sees "a major cable operator rolling out a new pricing model that looks like it has the scale to become a permanent system -- which is an appropriate moment to raise a red flag."