Why the Sky is not Falling (and neither are Unmetered Broadband Plans)
While scratching in her yard, Chicken Little was hit in the head by a pebble which fell from the roof. Since the pebble came from above where the sky was, Chicken Little was concerned. "I need to go and tell the king that the sky is falling," Chicken Little told yard-mate Henny Penny, who decided to come along. And on their way, they spread their warning to every group of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese that they met. And each time they stopped to tell the tale, more worried allies joined the cadre to warn the king. Then they met a fox, who used the tale to lure his gullible dinner into his den where they would be safe from a falling sky.
We heard a lot of tales throughout the Comcast case, each one turned out to be at odds with the truth. The latest one goes something like this: “If Comcast can no longer outright block its users peer-to-peer uploads, then all ISPs are going to switch to usage-based pricing models.”
Fooey. Shenanigans! Illogical, Mr. Spock!
The funny thing about this tale is that one rural ISP actually believed it and used the hubbub to try and pull a fast one on its users. Frontier, a rural LEC, saw that now was a good time to silently slip a bandwidth cap into its Terms of Service document on its website. They got caught, and the user-erected site StopTheCap obtained internal evidence showing that such a cap was bogus! Their scheme was laid public. Now, Frontier is revising and backtracking faster than a politician with a nanny problem at election time. (If Frontier was smart, they'd learn the PR lesson that Comcast failed to learn -- that the cover up is always worse than the deed -- and give it up now.)
Time Warner: Bandwidth hogs, pay up!; Cable company decides heavy bandwidth users will pay an additional monthly fee.
By Michael Martin
Later this year, Time Warner Cable will begin charging users a fee for downloading more than a monthly limit. The company has yet to release specific pricing changes.
The reason behind the move? Cable modem hogs cost cable companies money. Their networks are based on a shared infrastructure with several homes or businesses sharing a local access pipe. If one home or business is using its connection to transfer large amounts of data, performance for all other homes or businesses that rely on the same access pipe is affected. Ultimately, to ensure better performance for cable modem users on that portion of the network, the cable company has to segment the network by installing new equipment.
"Some users take up an inordinate amount of bandwidth," says Mike Luftman, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. "Anyone staying below a total amount of bits moved per month won't pay more. But if you consistently go over the limit, you're going to have to pay."
|Is this fallout from the FCC’s decision to prohibit Comcast from blocking P2P uploads? No, because this article was published in April 2002.|
Tech to tech -- I’d like to ask everyone to take a big deep breath and remember a few very basic facts about technology.
- Tests conducted nationwide by Project Glasnost indicated that only Comcast and Cox – just two ISPs – were significant interferers with P2P uploads using the specific technique that the FCC ruled against. If only two ISPs were doing it, then it takes an incredible leap of logic to conclude that the entire ISP industry is going to be switching to overage fees tomorrow.
- Moore’s Law, and its corollaries, all indicate that technology grows cheaper, or its capability increases, by a factor of two every 24 months or so. Networking technology is no different. Has your broadband bill gone down by half? Is your ISP bringing you about twice the speed and capacity than it brought to you two years ago? If not, then its a good bet that your ISP's costs of delivering the same level of service to you have dropped during this time and they simply would rather not increase the network's capacity as fast as you would like them to.
- The trend is always toward flat rate. Dial-up Internet access – these were pay-by-the-minute plans first, then flat rate. AmericaOnline (AOL) had a per-hour charge, then went flat-rate. Long Distance was heavily metered, now most plans are flat-rate. Wireless telephone service was by-the-minute, and is quickly heading toward flat-rate. Once technologies like Internet Access are started, they become less expensive over time and eventually wind up to be flat rate.
- Consumption on IP is not easily metered. Dial-up, Long-Distance, and Cellular telephone calls are (or were) billed by the minute. MMS/SMS messages are billed by the message. It’s going to be difficult to find an agreed-upon standard for measuring by-the-byte Internet use. The Internet is a best-effort network, and not every packet that starts in your direction arrives intact. Sometimes it is dropped by the router just upstream from you, or sometimes it is dropped further up. Sometimes the packet arrives damaged and has to be repeated, and sometimes a repeat is not necessary (depending on the protocol). Sometimes the packets you receive or generate aren’t even yours – such as the traffic generated by Internet worms, the approximately 100 daily spam messages most Internet mailboxes get, or the ever-growing size of the ads present on most web pages. If Cable ISPs think that the per-subscriber support costs are high now, imagine the costs over billing disputes over undelivered or duplicated traffic! It's just not worth it.
- It’s an elephant-gun approach. The cable industry (and let’s remember, this is pretty much a cable industry yarn that’s being spun – AT&T and Verizon are not actually showing tremendous interest in it) reminds us that somewhere around 5% of the users are causing 95% of the problem. Those are the kind of numbers that Mr. Pareto would call a “no brainer.” So rather than retool how broadband is delivered to our nation, are we really to believe that we’re not going to first try coming to deal specifically with these 5%?
Now this doesn’t mean that ISP’s won’t try it here and there. Time Warner Cable is torturing Beaumont Texas with a broadband metering plan with monthly usage caps as low as 5 GB – an amazingly ridiculous amount when you consider that a 56K dial-up modems can transfer up to 32 GB a month. But you really can’t blame the Comcast case for that one. Beaumont was selected long before the Comcast case was adjudicated, and Time Warner has floated this dumb idea before.
Derek Turner, a researcher at Free Press has released a policy brief -- Blocking or Metering, A False Choice -- that further scrutinizes these reasons and others. It’s a good read and well timed: If I was a venture capitalist with a dollar to spend right now, all this recent fear mongering over the future business model of the Internet would have me investing in flour or bleach, instead.
This doesn't mean that all caps are bad -- I certainly hold the position that if you have a bandwidth cap you ought to disclose it! But a cap of 5 GB when wholesale bandwidth for ISPs is so cheap is simply an illogical step backward into metered billing. And to tie the idea to the Comcast case is missing the point that Comcast already sold users' their bandwidth and that Comcast had positive control over the tiers and the rates that users' modems admitted traffic into the last mile, and that Comcast didn't want to change the tiers because it made them look less attractive than the tiers being offered by FIOS or DSL. So they secretly blocked P2P uploads, instead. Yes, this case was about a choice -- and it wasn't a choice between blocking or metering, it was a choice between truth and deception.
Those of us who know technology trends have a choice – we can either whip-up the frenzy, or we can calmly sit back, fold our glasses back into our pocket-protectors, and explain to the worried how things really work in technology.
Chief Technology Consultant
Free Press and Public Knowledge