Some people are never happy

by on May 12, 2008 · 15 comments

Broadband Reports ran an opinion piece by Karl last week discussing the rumors that Comcast will soon adopt a 250GB a month maximum with overage fees for excessive consumption.

As the piece points out, implementing overage fees runs the risk of giving FiOS (and, to a lesser extent, U-Verse) an even bigger edge on cable broadband. AT&T and Verizon, because of their last-mile network architectures, are less susceptible to congestion caused by heavy users than Comcast, with its shared cable network. AT&T and Verizon have gotten by without terminating heavy users or even charging them extra.

Yet right after Karl finishes explaining about how overage fees will change the competitive landscape, he starts ranting about the prospect of “investor pressure constantly forcing caps downward and overage fees upward.”

Competitive pressures make this scenario a remote possibility, especially as content portals serving massive files like Apple TV and Xbox Marketplace gain mainstream appeal. If Comcast wants to deflect criticism from other ISPs over bandwidth limits, any cap must be high enough to ensure very few customers even approach it. Arguably, 250GB a month is enough to satiate even power users, at least for a couple more years.

ISPs are competing fiercely to attract subscribers, so providers regularly make hay out of trivial product differences such as the “ugly cabinets” that AT&T sometimes installs when upgrading a neighborhood’s DSL speeds. Imagine the ads Verizon will run if Comcast starts charging customers for heavy use—“With Comcast, you never know when you’ll be hit with an enormous monthly bill if your kids go on a YouTube frenzy or your computer is overtaken by hackers. Here in FiOS land, rest assured there are no extra fees, no matter how much you download.” It’s not hard to see this message resonating with customers, especially those living in households with multiple Web-savvy residents.

Making things harder for Comcast is the fact that most U.S. customers aren’t used to explicit bandwidth limits (unlike Canadians). Currently, the only major U.S. ISP with an outright cap on consumption is Cox Cable, but even then enforcement is highly selective. Time Warner is testing the waters with bandwidth caps in a handful of markets, but otherwise most ISPs have either no caps at all or hidden ones affecting a tiny fraction of users.

The “Save the Internet” brigade’s insistence on neutrality and transparency has left Comcast with little choice but to resort to a metered solution to network congestion. Of course, I’m pleased that Sandvine and the “invisi-caps” will soon be history, and I look forward to consuming 249.99 GB each month on my Comcast connection.

But what about non-neutral solutions to last-mile congestion? To be sure, Sandvine was far from perfect, but who knows what innovative network management technologies will go undeveloped because of the stigma, and threat of regulation, against traffic discrimination?

It wouldn’t be surprising if we soon see calls for government to impose price controls because Comcast’s $1.50 per GB is “excessive” and “unfair.” For many proponents of government regulation of private networks, I suspect having neutral ISPs isn’t enough. They yearn for a utopian marketplace that offers limitless bandwidth, neutral networks, and affordable prices. And who doesn’t? But the best way to make this vision a reality is to foster private investment and let emerging technologies fill today’s competitive void.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com enigma_foundry

    The “Save the Internet” brigade’s insistence on neutrality and transparency has left Comcast with little choice but to resort to a metered solution to network congestion.

    Hmmm well, what exactly do you mean by this? What other solution to network congestion is there, other than some form of cap. If you are complaining about transparency, that’s very wrong from a viewpoint of maximizing market efficiency, as the more information is available, the more informed decisions market participants will be able to make. If you are complaining about net neutrality, you could be complaining about the ability of citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights, depending upon what you mean by net neutrality. See Ed Felten’s discussion of why net neutrality is so very hard to define.

    But what about non-neutral solutions to last-mile congestion? To be sure, Sandvine was far from perfect, but who knows what innovative network management technologies will go undeveloped because of the stigma, and threat of regulation, against traffic discrimination?

    The ISP’s who have implemented censorship of political views they don’t like sparked justifiable outrage against the attempt by a few large corporations to control political dissent. Any stigma is solely the result of their vain attempts to suppress political speech.

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2007/08/14/we-dont-need-no-thought-control/

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    The “Save the Internet” brigade’s insistence on neutrality and transparency has left Comcast with little choice but to resort to a metered solution to network congestion.

    Hmmm well, what exactly do you mean by this? What other solution to network congestion is there, other than some form of cap. If you are complaining about transparency, that’s very wrong from a viewpoint of maximizing market efficiency, as the more information is available, the more informed decisions market participants will be able to make. If you are complaining about net neutrality, you could be complaining about the ability of citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights, depending upon what you mean by net neutrality. See Ed Felten’s discussion of why net neutrality is so very hard to define.

    But what about non-neutral solutions to last-mile congestion? To be sure, Sandvine was far from perfect, but who knows what innovative network management technologies will go undeveloped because of the stigma, and threat of regulation, against traffic discrimination?

    The ISP’s who have implemented censorship of political views they don’t like sparked justifiable outrage against the attempt by a few large corporations to control political dissent. Any stigma is solely the result of their vain attempts to suppress political speech.

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2007/08/14/w

  • Ryan Radia

    When I talk about “non-neutral” solutions to network congestion, I’m talking about Sandvine-style systems. I won’t defend Sandvine, but one could argue that despite its flaws, Sandvine addressed network congestion while impacting fewer users than the outright bandwidth cap that Comcast will supposedly implement.

    I’m not a network engineer by any means so I have no clue what sort of network management technologies are out there to deal with overburdened nodes, but chances are Sandvine is one of many discriminatory methods for making the Internet smoother for customers. But because application discrimination is now taboo, and practically illegal, ISPs have fewer options in the basket for dealing with congestion.

    I also disagree with your view that oppression is occurring whenever a corporation exercises editorial discretion on a private webcast, message board, or forum. Let’s say your “political message” gets censored on AT&T’s webcast. Why not take your speech someplace else. That’s what the 1st amendment is for. Chances are there is a forum out there that will display your views, but if not, start your own website on a host promising free speech: https://www.nearlyfreespeech.net/

    The 1st amendment should not force me to let you speak on my doorstep, but that’s exactly what happens if AT&T has to let Phish speak out on its own video. Corporations do not control the channels of expression, especially in the digital age. When a website censors you, that’s not a neutrality violation. Only when an ISP censors content across its whole network is there a potential neutrality violation. Nearly all the examples you cite are about a specific website or video service choosing not to serve as a pulpit for speech

    The Madison River episode is perhaps the most troubling neutrality violation to date. The FCC intervened right away (perhaps rightly) so consumer backlash never fully materialized, but I strongly suspect that if the same events were to transpire today, four years later, the ISP would recognize and correct its mistake far sooner thanks to vigilant bloggers.

  • Ryan Radia

    When I talk about “non-neutral” solutions to network congestion, I’m talking about Sandvine-style systems. I won’t defend Sandvine, but one could argue that despite its flaws, Sandvine addressed network congestion while impacting fewer users than the outright bandwidth cap that Comcast will supposedly implement.

    I’m not a network engineer by any means so I have no clue what sort of network management technologies are out there to deal with overburdened nodes, but chances are Sandvine is one of many discriminatory methods for making the Internet smoother for customers. But because application discrimination is now taboo, and practically illegal, ISPs have fewer options in the basket for dealing with congestion.

    I also disagree with your view that oppression is occurring whenever a corporation exercises editorial discretion on a private webcast, message board, or forum. Let’s say your “political message” gets censored on AT&T’s webcast. Why not take your speech someplace else. That’s what the 1st amendment is for. Chances are there is a forum out there that will display your views, but if not, start your own website on a host promising free speech: https://www.nearlyfreespeech.net/

    The 1st amendment should not force me to let you speak on my doorstep, but that’s exactly what happens if AT&T has to let Phish speak out on its own video. Corporations do not control the channels of expression, especially in the digital age. When a website censors you, that’s not a neutrality violation. Only when an ISP censors content across its whole network is there a potential neutrality violation. Nearly all the examples you cite are about a specific website or video service choosing not to serve as a pulpit for speech

    The Madison River episode is perhaps the most troubling neutrality violation to date. The FCC intervened right away (perhaps rightly) so consumer backlash never fully materialized, but I strongly suspect that if the same events were to transpire today, four years later, the ISP would recognize and correct its mistake far sooner thanks to vigilant bloggers.

  • Carme

    @Ryan:

    “When I talk about “non-neutral” solutions to network congestion, I’m talking about Sandvine-style systems.”

    I’m not even sure Sandvine should be called “non-neutral”. From what I understand, cable networks as currently implemented have a problem of poor performance when the upload link is saturated simultaneously by many nodes on the local network. Sandvine targets the specific network usage patterns that result in this poor performance, not specific protocols, and IIRC it sabotaged protocols other than Bittorrent.

    I don’t think that someone knowledgeable in the field would suggest mandating that networks treat all protocols and network usage patterns equally, as that makes no sense, like mandating that a processor should run all programs equally fast. Processors aren’t neutral: they run optimized code quickly, and unoptimized, inefficient code slowly. It’s the same with network protocols: it’s up to the protocol designer to optimize it for the underlying technology. If there’s a poor match the protocol might run slowly without any intervention, or might actually harm the network in a way that interferes with all other protocols and demand active damage control. Bittorrent may perform well over Ethernet, DSL, fiber or even next-gen DOCSIS 3 cable networks, but it’s simply a poor match to existing DOCSIS 2 cable networks.

    One more example: say you have a big office party and need 300 cups of coffee. So you go to Starbucks, stand at the counter and place an order for a cup of coffee every 10 seconds. Here’s what will probably happen: at first they’ll try to put up with your pace and you’ll get many cups. Then a backlog will build up, they will try to work faster and faster and start messing up, spilling milk, breaking cups, jamming the machines etc. Service will slow down for everyone. Then they’ll probably ask you to stop placing orders, or ignore you when you do. If you keep going, a security guard might politely escort you out.

    Did Starbucks “discriminate” against you? Shouldn’t they perform the same function of taking money and serving coffee equally for everyone? Here it’s easy to see how important the usage pattern is. And it’s certainly unfair to call the security guard “non-neutral”. Hey, he’s just doing his job.

  • Carme

    @Ryan:

    “When I talk about “non-neutral” solutions to network congestion, I’m talking about Sandvine-style systems.”

    I’m not even sure Sandvine should be called “non-neutral”. From what I understand, cable networks as currently implemented have a problem of poor performance when the upload link is saturated simultaneously by many nodes on the local network. Sandvine targets the specific network usage patterns that result in this poor performance, not specific protocols, and IIRC it sabotaged protocols other than Bittorrent.

    I don’t think that someone knowledgeable in the field would suggest mandating that networks treat all protocols and network usage patterns equally, as that makes no sense, like mandating that a processor should run all programs equally fast. Processors aren’t neutral: they run optimized code quickly, and unoptimized, inefficient code slowly. It’s the same with network protocols: it’s up to the protocol designer to optimize it for the underlying technology. If there’s a poor match the protocol might run slowly without any intervention, or might actually harm the network in a way that interferes with all other protocols and demand active damage control. Bittorrent may perform well over Ethernet, DSL, fiber or even next-gen DOCSIS 3 cable networks, but it’s simply a poor match to existing DOCSIS 2 cable networks.

    One more example: say you have a big office party and need 300 cups of coffee. So you go to Starbucks, stand at the counter and place an order for a cup of coffee every 10 seconds. Here’s what will probably happen: at first they’ll try to put up with your pace and you’ll get many cups. Then a backlog will build up, they will try to work faster and faster and start messing up, spilling milk, breaking cups, jamming the machines etc. Service will slow down for everyone. Then they’ll probably ask you to stop placing orders, or ignore you when you do. If you keep going, a security guard might politely escort you out.

    Did Starbucks “discriminate” against you? Shouldn’t they perform the same function of taking money and serving coffee equally for everyone? Here it’s easy to see how important the usage pattern is. And it’s certainly unfair to call the security guard “non-neutral”. Hey, he’s just doing his job.

  • http://ditzler.blogspot.com Wyatt Ditzler

    Carme

    I think I can see what you were trying to express with the Starbucks example. There is one large difference that I am not sure was considered. ISPs are more like public utilities than corporations.

  • http://ditzler.blogspot.com Wyatt Ditzler

    Carme

    I think I can see what you were trying to express with the Starbucks example. There is one large difference that I am not sure was considered. ISPs are more like public utilities than corporations.

  • Carme

    Wyatt

    If you think that matters then I wasn’t clear enough. My point was that Starbucks can’t produce a cup of coffee every 10 seconds for a sustained period. It doesn’t matter whether they are a corporation or a public utility, or whether they want to do it or not. The way a current shop is set up, with a handful of kids manually operating coffee machines, there’s just a practical limit to the service they can provide.

    Comcast has the same problem: they can’t let everyone on a local network upload all the time at full rate. It’s not a matter of whether they “should” allow it or “choose” to allow it. These are moot questions since the current DOCSIS 2 technology just can’t handle it.

  • Carme

    Wyatt

    If you think that matters then I wasn’t clear enough. My point was that Starbucks can’t produce a cup of coffee every 10 seconds for a sustained period. It doesn’t matter whether they are a corporation or a public utility, or whether they want to do it or not. The way a current shop is set up, with a handful of kids manually operating coffee machines, there’s just a practical limit to the service they can provide.

    Comcast has the same problem: they can’t let everyone on a local network upload all the time at full rate. It’s not a matter of whether they “should” allow it or “choose” to allow it. These are moot questions since the current DOCSIS 2 technology just can’t handle it.

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