Friday, September 9, 2011

A Coming Storm – Bandwidth Caps, Streaming Content and Cloud Computing.

Not so long ago, Cable and Broadband Internet provider Comcast was in the news over the disconnection of a customer for excessive broadband use. Now, It'd be easy for me to write a page and a half of Comcast hate on this topic, as many people who have had dealings with that company have been dissatisfied with their service. However, the issue is more complicated than "Comcast Sucks," there are readers out there who live in countries or areas of the US where Comcast isn't even an option, and what is going on affects anyone who uses the internet, or it soon will. This issue skirts perilously close to the politically-charged concept of Net Neutrality, so we may drift into that discussion as well.

Since the early days of the internet, the companies that provide access have sought a way to change fee structures to either a usage-based model (like mobile phones have) or content-priority model (like Cable TV.) It makes sense, on its surface. People are willing to pay a certain amount for internet access, but technology moves ever forward, and new infrastructure, better speeds and more bandwidth cost more for the provider, without providing significant additional revenue. The problem is, since the time of America On-Line as a dial-up service, customers have unilaterally rejected any attempts to carve up service or to charge on a per-hour basis. However, customer outrage only accomplishes so much, especially in regions where there is little or no competition. A customer can be as angry as they like, but if they cannot take their business elsewhere, they have little recourse.

The massive costs associated with establishing a network infrastructure capable of providing residential high-speed internet has created a unique situation. In order to entice companies to create and do at least minimal improvements and maintenance on those lines, governments offer a regulated monopoly in many cases to recoup those costs. Unfortunately, the legal definition of "competition" in networking doesn't keep pace with technological development, so even after exclusive contracts run out, virtual monopolies may remain in place because while there is technically competition, the service alternatives may not provide a reasonable level of service. This leaves large areas with two, or even just one legitimate options for internet service as the norm, rather than the exception, and all sorts of customer abuse and anti-competitive practice can take place outside the auspices of laws designed to protect consumers from monopolies.

Well, not that sort of Monopoly, but you get my point.

These companies provide access to their network, but would, of course, prefer that individual customers not use all of their capacity all the time. If a significant percentage of customers did this, the network couldn't handle it, meaning more expensive and difficult network upgrades for the same fees. Since the public won't stand for certain changes to fee structuring, and in some countries internet access has been classified as a basic human need along with other essential utilities, blunting the power of the monopoly, something has to give. The solution was intially to throttle certain types of traffic, slowing down the connection for users who are performing certain network operations. The legal and ethical concerns around snooping into data entering or leaving customer homes made this a poor solution, and the concept of a bandwidth cap was instituted.

Coming at the issue from another angle, normal and legal consumer uses for bandwidth-hevy operations seem to be increasing daily. Streaming video through YouTube and similar services, High-Definition TV and Film by way of Netflix, Hulu and HBOGo, Voice-over-IP telephone service like Skype scratch the surface of high-bandwidth use. Cloud computing shares hardware and network resources to use applications like Google Documents, run websites like Reddit and provide online virtual backup drives for long-term storage that is not at risk of a single power outage or natural disaster wiping out all copies of important files. As these services become more popular, a whole lot of data needs to be transferred around, and that means more bandwidth and strain on the networks.

It isn't just pirates using large amounts of bandwidth anymore.

It was easy at first for large companies to "sell" the concept of bandwidth caps by insinuating that unless someone was a filthy pirate illegally downloading and uploading "stolen" intellectual property, that the caps wouldn't affect anyone. These caps have been in place in many areas for three or more years, and the hard limits are not going up, despite the increasing demand for bandwidth in legitimate internet traffic. Average caps in the US are currently around 250GB/Mo for service providers who also provide cable TV, leading to accusations that these caps are in place partly to discourage use of streaming video services that compete with cable television services. In Canada, caps are frequently even lower, especially away from large metropolitan areas where caps are as low as 25-60GB per month. That is as low as 12 HD films streamed over a connection in a month before disconnection of service. In Europe, the figures vary wildly, as the geographic size of areas needing to be covered by lines for networking is comparatively smaller in many countries, which in some places allows for better networks and more healthy competition.

Land lines, laptops and desktops aren't the only devices running into monitored and limited internet usage. As the internet speeds on mobile devices has improved over the years, customers found ways to use Unlimited data plans to "tether" mobile devices to computers for a comparable high-speed internet connection to DSL or Cable. As a result, many mobile providers no longer offer such plans as a financial necessity. It isn't just the cable companies and DSL providers that would prefer a customer who only uses their connection to check e-mail and play Farmville. With more devices in production that are connecting to the internet this tug of war will only get worse. Tablet PCs, gaming devices, internet radio receivers, and e-book readers are in use now, and even curiosities like digital picture frames with their own e-mail address to be mailed photos for display are currently on the market, and all will use a bit of bandwidth.

Pressure on world goverments and dedicated public relations campaigns representing both consumers and the interest of Internet Service Providers are fighting this issue out as we speak. At stake is how much and based on what criteria people will pay for internet access, and the difficult balancing act of maintaining a reasonable profit for companies who pay to establish and upgrade critical data networks against the growing needs of consumers and their desire for fair pricing. These are already many essential services that rely at least partially on internet access, so the argument declaring it a luxury weakens every year. I will, at the very least, be keeping a close eye on the outcome of this battle in both laws passed around the globe, and the court of public opinion.
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Alpha said...

Time to find some 'creative' alternatives.

Jessica Thompson said...

Haha, that's great!

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