November 01, 2008

ISPs Race Toward the Bandwidth Cap Twilight Zone

Greetings. ISPs say that they mainly exist to serve their subscribers. But increasingly, it's difficult to be sure about whose interests they're actually serving.

The New York Times is reporting that ISPs are all hot to trot for bandwidth caps and "extra usage" charges, and some of these seem best described as draconian.

Frontier is talking about a 5 GB/month bandwidth cap. T-Mobile, which had previously backed down on a 1 GB limit for Google Android G1 users, now is calling customer data usage levels "crazy" and is gearing up for limits and "excess data" fees.

All around the Internet, Internet Service Providers, having suckered users in for years based on the promise of "unlimited" usage (though in reality it never really was truly unlimited in most cases) are now priming the profit center pump -- with images of video moola dancing merrily in their bean counters' hearts.

The calculus seems rather straightforward. Legitimate video applications now reportedly exceed P2P in terms of data volume. But many ISPs are video suppliers in their own right (cable, DSL U-verse, etc.) These internal video services, especially pay-per-view, are cash cows supreme.

The last thing that ISPs want is to be competing with a vast range of outside Internet services which are also providing video. So to the extent that these "interlopers" can be marginalized and disadvantaged, the more subscribers can be expected to avail themselves of the ISPs' own video offerings.

Too simple an analysis? Video is only one factor? Fair enough. But unfortunately, much of the data regarding ISP Internet traffic, usage, and associated activities is considered proprietary by those very same ISPs -- rendering outside observers impotent to characterize the situation in a comprehensive manner.

So we usually just have to accept an ISP's word for it when they attempt to justify their disdain for what they call the "heavy users" of the Internet, vs. their preferred users, whom we assume are little old ladies from Pasadena who only use the Net on Sunday to check on the weather before heading out to church.

Speaking of Internet usage choices -- here's a question to ponder. Faced with bandwidth caps and extra charges, which of the following is the average Internet user likely to cut back? Video viewing? -- or routine application updates and their associated security fixes that often don't seem to do anything particularly visible nor interesting on users' systems?

Logic would point toward the former -- after all, video is typically going to eat a much larger share of data than updates (though with a 5 GB cap, even some routine updates are going to definitely take a significant chunk). Psychology however suggests that before many users will change their behavior with the applications that they most use and enjoy, they'll probably turn off everything else, and updates might easily fall into that latter category, with associated "interesting" ramifications.

The lack of an appropriate regulatory structure for ISPs in the U.S. has left consumers of all types, sizes, and needs at the ISPs' mercies. Consumers usually have no effective paths to verify ISP claims or protest their actions. Meanwhile, ISPs are moving rapidly toward usage-sensitive bandwidth caps and per-byte charging -- likely the most significant Internet paradigm shift to affect consumers since the Net was first commercialized.

If you're feeling complacent that these ISP crackdowns haven't affected your usage yet, don't get too comfortable.

There are many definitions of "service" -- and when it comes to various recent ISP actions, I'm increasingly reminded of a classic original Twilight Zone episode. To quote Lloyd Bochner in To Serve Man:

"Sooner or later, we'll all of us be on the menu."


Posted by Lauren at November 1, 2008 11:15 AM | Permalink
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