Time Warner to test Internet billing based on usage

NEW YORK, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Time Warner Cable Inc TWC.N said on Wednesday it is planning a trial to bill high-speed Internet subscribers based on their amount of usage rather than a flat fee, the standard industry practice.

The second largest U.S. cable operator said it will test consumption-based billing with subscribers in Beaumont, Texas later this year as a part of a strategy to help reduce congestion of its network by a minority of consumers who pay the same monthly fee as light users.

The company believes the billing system will impact only heavy users, who account for around 5 percent of all customers but typically use more than half of the total network bandwidth, according to a company spokesman.

Slowing network congestion due to downloading of large media files such as video is a growing problem for Time Warner Cable. The company said the problem will worsen as video downloading becomes more popular.

But the move could prove controversial. Unlike with utility bills such as the phone or electricity, which have traditionally been based on usage, U.S. high-speed Internet subscribers have come to expect a fixed monthly charge. An Internet bill typically only varies based on the speed of the consumer’s Internet access.

Time Warner Cable, which has 7.4 million residential Internet subscribers, is hoping the move will not confuse consumers if introduced nationwide and is planning a trial period.

“Largely, people won’t notice the difference,” said the Time Warner Cable spokesman. “We don’t want customers to feel they’re getting less for more.” News of Time Warner Cable’s plans was originally leaked on an online industry forum

Other cable operators may follow Time Warner Cable's lead and phone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc VZ.N and AT&T Inc T.N are likely to be watching the New York-based cable operator's plans.

As U.S. consumers have become more used to streaming and downloading digital media over the Web, their Internet service providers have started to come under pressure to be able to keep up with growing demand in a cost-effective manner.

Comcast Corp CMCSA.O, the largest cable operator with around 13 million Internet subscribers, has been accused by consumer groups of blocking Web traffic moving across its networks, prompting a notice of inquiry by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this week.

Comcast denies it blocks any Internet traffic saying it uses bandwidth management technology to help improve the customer experience but which may slow down some file transfers. (Editing by Lincoln Feast)