Archive for December, 2011

Bandwidth Hogs Don’t Exist

Monday, December 5th, 2011

(or, A Decade into “Always-On” Internet.)

We’re in a paradoxical situation. broadband Internet networks keep getting better, but service provider limits on them keep getting worse.

As of this fall AT&T U-Verse has joined my cable Internet provider, Comcast, in imposing bandwidth caps of 250 GB per month on broadband Internet customers. Cox, Time Warner, Charter, and many more ISPs are now capping. Wireless or wired (and even on new fiber), the North American broadband landscape is now one where broadband internet means limits on usage.

The caps often come with additional fees. AT&T, for example, charges $10 per 50 GB as an overage charge in addition to the cap. Comcast simply threatens to permanently drop customers who go over the cap. As many commentators have pointed out, the ISPs seem to hate their customers, particularly when the customers like to use the product the ISPs are selling.

The alleged reason for the paradox of faster networks = more use restrictions is that the carriers claim the fat pipes have birthed a mythic beast, the “bandwidth hog.” A small number of “hogs” are taking up the whole Internet, and it just isn’t fair to you, say the carriers. The networks wouldn’t need such restrictions if only people would use the Internet “responsibly.” As the former satire news service Wallstrip put it, apparently the Internet isn’t big enough for everyone. Some of you have to leave.

We know from the research literature that there is a major psychological difference between metered and unmetered service. The initial rapid growth of Internet use in the US back in the days of the dial-up modem has been attributed to our historical preference for flat-fee local telephone service: calls to modem banks in the 1990s largely unmetered, and this left people free to play and experiment.

I was a research assistant for the authors of a key paper in the area eleven years ago.  The paper analyzed the consequences of an “always-on” unmetered broadband Internet–then a new idea. It pointed out that the ways people use unmetered always-on Internet are drastically different from those of metered use. Here’s the cite:

François Bar, Stephen Cohen, Peter Cowhey, Brad Delong, Michael Kleeman, John Zysman. (2000). Access and Innovation Policy for the Third-Generation Internet. Telecommunications Policy 24: 489-518. (Link to full text.)

It’s a decade later and things are going backwards. The new caps and metering are the opposite of our hopes for the Internet eleven years ago. Instead of “always-on” we’re now at “watch your meter” — if you can even find out how to check it.

Now, reporters say that a new study by consultancy Diffraction Analysis using actual ISP user data has found that bandwidth caps don’t work to improve congestion problems and that the mythical “bandwidth hogs” don’t actually exist. (See the excellent coverage at DSLReports.)

A quote from a reader of the DSLReports piece puts the facts in terms of the highway metaphor:

1% of vehicle drivers on the road travel a disproportionate amount of miles compared to the average driver. But they are on the road all the time. Most of the time they are on the road there is no rush hour congestion.The heavy drivers are likely to be involved in rush hour traffic jams, but only represent a small, not terribly relevant, fraction of total drivers in the traffic jam. Limiting the amount of miles a driver can drive does nothing to widen the roads and little to keep people off the roads during traffic jams, thus does not help with congestion.

In other words, given the weak correlation between a person’s bandwidth usage right now and a person’s total bits downloaded in a month, metering obviously targets the wrong thing and is not an effective tool for managing congestion.

To refine the highway metaphor a little bit, I would explain why bandwidth caps don’t work by saying:

Commuters cause traffic jams at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. even if they only drive twice a day. Restricting the career travel of long-haul truckers won’t help.

Why do ISPs do it then? One answer is possibly incompetence. A variety of broadband carriers appear to struggle with the accurate tracking of consumer usage. They advocate metering but when they implement it they are unable to correctly measure how much data their customers use. They just don’t seem to have a grasp of what is going on inside their own networks.

However, surely many ISPs are aware of their own customer’s usage patterns. They know that “bandwidth hogs” don’t exist.  What, then, are they up to?

A much better motive for metering and caps in the case of triple-play operators (those who provide Internet and also provide pay television) is to protect their lucrative market for video from encroachment by Internet video competition.

In other words, Comcast has monopoly power in cable television in many markets. It has set its 250 GB/month cap so that it is impossible to buy television over its Internet service (take that, Netflix!) or to use free Internet video services in lieu of cable TV (take that, YouTube!), thus maintaining its monopoly in video. By the way, that is the definition of a violation of antitrust law. Hello, Justice Department?

The caps often don’t seem to have any connection to bandwidth anyway–at Comcast they were set at 250GB three years ago and have never been raised, despite drastic increases in Comcast service capacity with the adoption of newer DOCSIS 3.0 service and higher speed tiers. They also use the same caps across all of their service areas, which makes no sense if they are related to network capacity (which varies according to their adoption of DOCSIS 3.0, and other things).

It isn’t as though customers haven’t noticed this situation. Did you know that media companies–particularly carriers and networks–are almost all the most hated companies in national surveys of customer satisfaction? In one 2011 study, Internet service providers as a sector almost tied for last place (with newspapers), with Comcast dead last among its competitors at 59% satisfied.

It’s time to call out this farce of the “bandwidth hog” and the irresponsible user. Instead, let’s get some policies in place to control money hogs–the carriers that are exploiting monopoly power at our expense.


Updated 2:51 p.m. Fixed four typos, added the words “alleged,” and “fat pipes.” Added the commuters/long-haul truckers metaphor.

[This post was cross-posted to the social media collective. –CS]

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