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How Penny Per Page Might Work

Changing the Culture

What will people think about the idea of paying a penny per page? Won't people complain about having to pay for the Web?

Anyone who accesses the Web from home pays a monthly fee to an ISP for the privilege. An AOL account is typical, and it costs about $20 a month. MSN and Earthlink are about the same. People in the United States are already paying for the Web; but the Web sites -- the reason people log on in the first place -- get none of it.

Will people complain about paying slightly more per month under the penny per page model? Right now people pay for cable TV, newspapers, magazines, telephone calls, directory assistance, video tapes, movie tickets, DVDs, pay-per-view, CDs, books, ring tones, 900 services, college courses...

The fact that we don't pay for Web content is a historic anomaly. The benefits to be reaped by paying a very small amount of money for Web content are gigantic. Right now, people are actively denying themselves many of the most amazing things that the Web could provide because of the "totally free" World Wide Web.

One of the reasons for choosing a simple approach like a penny per page is because it is such a small amount of money. Here are four examples to illustrate the point:

  • If you are looking for information about portable defibrillators, is it worth a penny to get the 10 most relevant links from Google?
  • If you are thinking about buying a book, is it worth a penny for Amazon to let you see the opinions of 10 readers who bought the book you're interested in?
  • If you are doing a term paper on Afghanistan, is it worth a penny to go to Britannica to find out the history of the country?
  • If you need someone's phone number, or a map to someone's house, is it worth a penny to find it at PeopleSearch or MapQuest?

These are ridiculous questions -- of course it is worth a penny. Right now you probably pay a dollar to get a person's phone number from directory assistance. A penny is an amazing bargain.

It's also not going to add up to very much per month. People who log on to check stock prices, look up the weather, read the top news stories and so on might look at 25 or 50 pages a day. They would pay something between $5 and $15 per month for Web content. But let's also take the worst case scenario. Let's say that you sat in front of your computer 8 hours a day and looked at a new page every two minutes without interruption 20 days per month. That would cost $48 for the month. That is the worst case scenario, and it is unlikely anyone is going to do that. The cost will be minimal for just about everyone.

Flat Rate Pricing

One important thing to recognize is that a penny per page is not the only possible billing model. The goal of a penny per page is to find a way to pay Web sites directly for their content so that they can survive and thrive, and so that people have an incentive to develop new sites. One alternative would be a flat rate pricing model.

For example, people might pay a flat rate of $10 or $20 per month. Web sites would not receive "exactly one penny per page", but instead would receive a portion of each user's $10 fee based on traffic. If 10% of a user's page views went to CNN in a particular month, then CNN would receive 10% of the user's fee that month.

This approach answers the key objection that many people have to the pure penny per page concept -- its open-ended nature. Web sites would not receive a penny per page, but they would get money based on their traffic. An extremely easy way to implement this model would be for ISPs to collect the $10 fee from users and distribute it to Web sites based on traffic stats available to the ISPs.