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Break out the Bandwidth Rations: Bandwidth Capping: A Necessary Evil? With more and more ISP's thinking about limiting your overall total bandwidth consumption, we discuss if this is the right way to go about cutting costs and maintaining a high level of quality service.
Date: May 9, 2003
Catagory: Articles
Manufacturer: N/A
Written By:

Break out the Rations

Right now a lot of broadband providers are seriously weighing the pros and cons of bandwidth consumption caps in an effort to lower there running costs. Some have already applied restrictions to there service and it seems to be a growing trend. Others are awaiting the outcome of watching there competitors apply caps. Cable companies in particular are looking at this kind of approach, since if you and your neighbours are both on the same node, if half of you are utilizing your bandwidth to its maximum, the other half won't be able to. DSL for home use can function in the same way, with contention appearing at the exchange/central office. This kind of capping is driven mainly by money rather than pressure from organisations such as the RIAA, who would like ISP's to disconnect those using there bandwidth to illegally obtain music, films and other digital data. Whether or not ISP's should do this is a topic for another discussion, but as of right now, ISP's don't want to lose any customers over this and so reduce there income.

I really dislike the idea of bandwidth capping, especially those that are capping there services at such ridiculously low limits as to provide you with only enough bandwidth that it would be theoretically possible to use up your entire limit in one day. Spam and Pop-up ads will eat into your allowance, as would Spyware programs. All of you in the know will go out and grab some form of Ad blocker, Spam filter and Spyware removal programs to help preserve what bandwidth you have. Admittedly this totals to a drop in the ocean but in the end, over time it all adds up. What about malicious attacks? It's entirely possible for someone to stream to your computer without your knowledge, pushing up your traffic usage through no fault of your own. Now just you try proving that and maintaining your online privacy from your ISP (I knew I shouldn't have gone to &.). Of course a firewall will help, but again if Joe Average doesn't know about this he's going to be mightily pissed off when his bill comes in. You're constantly going to have to keep track of how much data you're using in a month to make sure you don't incur the extra costs, and as has been suggested by those currently limited by capping, the tools for monitoring this for non-techie types are sometimes not provided. Those that do provide a way to monitor bandwidth usage for the end user, doesn't always match up with end users own results, providing a dilemma of who is right, the customer or the ISP? (the truth is probably somewhere in between) At the end of the day a lot of this is really down to what the actual bandwidth limit on the service is, but who is to say what that limit should be?

The only people capable of answering this is going to be the ones providing and monitoring the service, and since there wanting to make a profit they are naturally going to do what is best to keep them making a profit. This is often not the fault of the ISP, since many in the end are at the mercy of having to pay for the bandwidth they provide from the telco's, and they are in business to make money after all. Most of what has been said here applies to the smaller ISP's who often market there business in areas that would otherwise be without some form of high speed internet. They are usually smaller in scale and should be able to offer better customer support than larger ISP's who are not going to miss one or two customers because they screwed up somewhere (then again, if there's no competition then customer support and service quality can suffer badly since the consumer has little choice but to go with them if they want high speed internet). But bandwidth capping at ridiculously low limits isn't a solution for the long run since the majority of those who have limits don't seem to understand that with the speed of broadband it is entirely possible to use up your quota in few days with gaming, streaming media and entertainment. How many of you like surfing for wallpapers for your PC? Looking at a couple of hundred 1600*1200 bmps or jpegs can eat into your quota quite rapidly. Film trailers? I personally wouldn't want to look at the low res small images of a trailer if a larger one was available simply because I don't have enough bandwidth left this month. Sure, a lot of consumers want broadband for reasons other than being able to download gigs of data at a time, be it the always on aspect, or simply the ability to multi-task your connection. But as consumers naturally explore the possibilities the extra speed provides such as file sharing and streaming media, they will want to be able to do this without the worry of extra costs or disconnections for abuse of the service. Low Limit Capping is not a perfect solution and shouldn't been seen as such, as it can only hinder the progression of this communication medium.

I mean think about it. Look what happened with the average PC. As users needs and demands changed with a requirement for more power and speed, the PC changed with it increasing the MHz, as did the software to run on them. The internet is no different. Streaming media, e-commerce, pure communication, despite compression and optimization is going to need a growth in the speed to keep up with the demand. More overall speed is going to total an overall increase in the amount of bandwidth used. New technologies and new uses for old are already on the horizon, but what's the point if utilizing these technologies is going to eat into your ration from the barrel to the point you will have none left for the rest of the month?

The Solution

So what's the answer to this problem? Well I certainly don't have it, but capping at low levels will only harm the growth of this medium, and delay any new and exciting uses the technology could be used for, that much is obvious. Some ISPS' still don't spend enough time optimizing there networks, or educating there customers in optimizing there PC's to obtain the most reliable and stable service. Tweaking MTU's, Receive Windows and the like are still pretty much in the realm of 'Power Users' and 'Tech Heads', when if everyone was as informed, overall performance of a network could be improved drastically. And does it really cost that much to e-mail your customers and provide them with a link to one of the many free utilities that will do this tweaking for them? Traffic shaping and port throttling on a time basis would help to lower overall usage during peak hours, for instance allowing unrestricted access during the hours of say midnight to 8am, with daytime business and evening surfers benefiting from the preserved quality of service during there main usage times.

I apologize for not remembering the person responsible for this next idea (I know he's Swedish &..) but it is one I believe has some merit. A home user is given 2 connections. One is a high speed, on-demand connection used primarily for big downloads. The second connection is a low speed, low latency connection, used primarily for gaming, surfing, checking your e-mail etc. The low speed low latency is an always on connection with no limits. The High speed connection is used only when needed, capped at a reasonable limit of say 50gig a month, with anyone going over this being switched to a PAYG affair. This idea of course isn't without flaws, since the high speed connection is still limited, but it does provide comsumers with more of a choice in what they do, in that if they reach the limit they can either PAYG or revert to there low speed, low latency line only and still maintain connectivity until the next billing month. Of course this does mean that those who use there connection for streaming media such as internet radio or video are still going to be somewhat crippled eventually, and a setup like this will require for many companies an extensive change and overhaul of there main infrastructure, with a lot of these changes being governed by a regulatory power. Wireless has a lot of potential in regards to economics, in that you could skip the last mile, with no need to worry about unbundling costs. I'm sure there's other possibilities out there right now that could help lower costs and still maintain quality of service for all, with each of those ideas with there own pro's and cons.

But for now .....

Those ISP's who are doing bandwidth capping should at the very least provide the necessary monitoring tools and be prepared for margins of error. They should also be aware of the need to increase those limits as time goes on. Pretty obvious stuff and most ISP's have already thought about this. If you're capped in anyway and your ISP doesn't do this, it's time for you to get in contact with them and get something sorted. Another line of thinking; Tiered services could work if done right. At the moment most broadband users pay a one off payment per month, but how about charging you a fixed rate according to your usage for that month in particular.

Internet usage invariably differs from one month to the next, so selling a "gold service" to Joe Average who then only uses half the bandwidth on the second month is only going to be seen as a waste of money by Joe. End users would benefit if they were "rewarded" for low usage by not having to pay the premium all the time. Those in the bronze category who rarely go over 5 gig a month could be charged less than the old unrestricted monthly service, with an ISP making up any losses from such a pricing from the heavy users. This would in turn make it a more attractive proposition for those still unwilling to pay the extra 5 greenback over there dial-up account. Some people want faster connections simply because they want the extra speed, so that once a month they can grab that latest Windows Update in record time or surf the web without the World Wide Wait. Others don't mind the wait as long as they can grab as much as they want, when they want. By separating the speed and the limit, and not applying those limits to a fixed price but rather charging them for the category they fall into for that particular month, will provide consumers with more of a choice to suit there usage patterns. Perhaps combined with the 2 connections idea this would be a good solution? What would be good is if the Telco's lowered there prices, so that ISP's could afford to buy more bandwidth and provide us with the connections we want at the prices we want. Chances of this happening without intervention from the 'regulatory powers that be' is minimal since most telco's have a monopoly and are unwilling to give up the edge they have. If there was a bit more competition between telco's then things might change.

Like I said I don't have all the answers, (I probably don't even have all the questions!) but I do know that fixed capping at ridiculously low limits will only hinder the growth of this exciting and full of possibilities medium that provides us with an extensive library of knowledge, free ideas, entertainment and communication with the entire planet. Bandwidth capping is a growing trend, and like it or not, more ISP's are thinking of limiting your total use for home connections. It should make for an interesting competative selling point amongst those who do cap, those who don't and those providing a higher cap than the opposition. And I haven't really even touched on the subject of those areas where competition is non-existant, or those who can't even get broadband. Hopefully a solution can be found that will be beneficial to all.

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