Plenty of people in Ashland weren't just peeking at their Christmas presents, they were opening them up early and using them.

Plenty of people in Ashland weren't just peeking at their Christmas presents, they were opening them up early and using them.

The Ashland Fiber Network saw a surge in bandwidth use well before Dec. 25, indicating that some residents weren't waiting to use their new electronics like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 video game systems that allow people to get movies off the Internet.

City of Ashland Information Technology Director Rob Lloyd, who heads AFN, had predicted a post-holiday bandwidth use surge as people started using their presents.

"We saw it early. Apparently no one waited until Christmas," he said.

In September and October, bandwidth use rose a total of 8.2 percent over the two months. Use surged a total of 32 percent for November and December, according to AFN data.

Bandwidth usage hit 492.88 megabits per second in December. AFN has already increased its capacity to 1,000 Mbps to prepare for the ongoing growth of electronic devices that use the Internet, Lloyd said.

That capacity upgrade should be sufficient until 2012, but AFN plans further upgrades this year to extend past then, he said.

AFN had planned to start charging extra fees for customers who use an excessive amount of bandwidth, but decided instead that customers will receive a warning call about their use.

Customers will be encouraged to buy a higher level Internet package, Lloyd said.

In December, the Ashland City Council approved 11 different levels of AFN Internet service. Those became available this month.

If customers continue to use excessive bandwidth, AFN will slow down their Internet speed until their use drops. When they stop using so much bandwidth, their speeds will increase again, he said.

Few customers will be affected. AFN has three major offenders, and a total of 21 customers are at their limits, Lloyd said.

With all the new devices out there, he estimated that up to 2.7 percent of AFN customers could eventually be notified of over-use, and be invited to buy a higher speed Internet package.

AFN had 3,634 customers at last count, according to AFN data.

Companies like Charter Communications that provide Internet services are already taking steps to address excessive bandwidth consumption by some customers, so AFN is part of that industry trend, Lloyd said.

People who do normal Internet tasks — even downloading movies off the Internet to watch at home — are unlikely to run into bandwidth use trouble.

Instead, the people who are using excessive bandwidth are usually engaged in the practice of joining with massive groups of other users to download and upload large files through services like BitTorrent. It's not uncommon for a swarm of more than 5,000 international users to form and swap material. Doing so can be illegal if the material is protected by copyright, Lloyd said.

The swarms of people swapping files may account for up to 55 percent of Internet traffic in some areas, according to an international study done by a German Internet traffic management firm.

In other AFN news, the City Council on Tuesday approved the formation of an AFN Advisory Board. The board will include local residents, and Lloyd also hopes to tap out-of-state telecommunications experts who could serve on the board via teleconferencing.

In 2012, the City Council will review whether to keep AFN, sell its telecommunications infrastructure, or spin it off as an independent nonprofit like the Ashland Community Hospital, which was once a city service. The AFN Advisory Board will sunset in 2012.

Several years ago, city officials decided to keep the service after a review, in part because AFN contributes revenue to help make payments on a $15.5 million debt that accumulated during its early years of operation. AFN was launched in the late 1990s.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.