The Truth on Broadband Congestion

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

GigaOM has been spending considerable time lately covering issues of broadband congestion and possible broadband capping—not without some overt hostility expressed by regular readers, who seem to think the issue is one of “selfish” users impacting on the quality of broadband for all. Previous entries are Yo FCC! Are You Doing Anything About Metered Broadband and Warning Sign: Metered Broadband Already a Hassle.

Today, Stacey Higginbotham points to a new report by Free Press that addresses the reality of broadband congestion, as well as providing good alternatives to the caps that current ISPs are considering using.

According to the PDF report, how much congestion there is in broadband is open for debate. For instance when Bell Canada started application throttling it admitted during an investigation of its practice that there was “almost no congestion…”. I would not be surprised to see the same with networks here, including ATT with its talk of the use of caps being “inevitable”.

In addition, the report also provided some very real, effective solutions that are much better than capping—including throttling during peak usage, whereby a person’s bandwidth speed would be reduced to a certain level during congested hours. This is a superior solution because, as the report expresses eloquently, caps will impact on everyone’s use of broadband:

Compared to limitation pricing, limitation throttling also makes better sense for ISPs. Limitation pricing (especially with low caps) will modify the behavior of almost all users. With everyone watching the meter, this pricing model will inevitably lead even casual users to spend less time online or to avoid applications that use high amounts of bandwidth—the very applications that are response for the increases in the perceived value of broadband access of customers.

This pattern of changing behavior will inevitably cause the marginal customer to question the need for the connection in the first place, leading to a possible slowdown in the growth of new customers for ISPs.

The report also covers the issue of caps in other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, and Canada, but explains that much of the traffic in these countries is asymmetric, with traffic one way. This is more expensive than what we’re facing in this country, where we produce most of the online material we consume. As it is, most other countries also have much more competition among providers than we do in the States.

In addition to capacity issues, the report discusses the US’s declining position as technical “leader” in the world, a position that could only be degraded if we were to throttle an essential resource like the internet.

At issue is not that broadband companies are becoming overwhelmed, but that the same companies providing broadband are beginning to perceive that online video offerings such as Netflix WatchNow, Hulu, iTunes, and so on could become an eventual threat to their bread-and-butter operations: offering entertainment packages. Capping broadband use to prevent competition is against the law in this country. If this is the situation, when reason fails, the courts will then need to become engaged. I have to think the ISPs know this, and such knowledge will give them pause.

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