The Internet is Not Free

With Time Warner introducing usage pricing and Comcast throttling, you might think there's a problem ahead in consumer broadband. There isn't.
There are some stories that get me more riled up then others. The recent news that Time Warner is now, all of a sudden, testing usage-based pricing for its residential broadband customers is once such piece of tech news.

My issue isn't with what Time Warner is trying to do. Rather, my issue is with the perception that the Internet is free -- that is, that heavy usage is without cost.

The Internet is not free, and for the most part, it never has been.

The Time Warner story is essentially that they will now have plans tailored to fit the bandwidth usage requirements of users.

To me, and to many others, that's likely to involve usage capping and overage charges. While these terms might have negative connotations, they've both been around for as long as there has been commercial Internet access.

On the enterprise access side, there almost always is a usage cap of some sort. Businesses routinely pay overage charges when they exceed the amount of data to which they're entitled through the ISP plan they've purchased.

If a network administrator has done his or her job properly and accurately assessed their network needs in terms of access, then caps or overage charges shouldn't be issues.

On the residential side, plan limits on Internet usage traditionally have been so generous (and unpublished, except in the fine-print of service agreements) that they've never been much of a real issue for the vast majority of users.

Until relatively recently, residential bandwidth consumption consisted of e-mail and Web traffic, neither of which were too demanding. With the new demands of VoIP (define), peer-to-peer (P2P) applications and bandwidth-intensive Web video, residential bandwidth demands have skyrocketed.

And with skyrocketing demand has come what many analysts have said is a decrease in average revenue per user.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, they say. That's true of the Internet access business.

If some users go over a "usage cap" (published or otherwise) and bandwidth demand is increasing (which it is) and carriers aren't making as much money on a per-user basis (they aren't) what's the solution?

It's really a matter of common sense. Just like enterprise users and, of course, hosted server users, residential users need to be reigned in. But just a bit.

While "unlimited" access may sound a lot better than having to accept a usage cap, usage caps aren't necessarily that onerous.

In my experience, a 100GB monthly limit for many residential users is likely all they'll need. That would allow for even large transfers like P2P traffic, which doesn't have to be just for piracy purposes either as some have alleged.

I have a 100GB monthly transfer cap. I use BitTorrent every day to leech and seed Linux distributions. I download movies on iTunes and I also use VoIP as my principal voice platform.

So in my experience, that cap isn't too shabby. Sure, I'd like the idea of totally unlimited Internet, but I know that everyone has got to make a living and that the Internet is not free.

The carrier networks are under incredible pressures now due to the increased network demands placed on them by residential users. I know full well from my efforts here at across countless briefings, interviews and stories that the carriers are struggling to deploy faster networks, 40G now and 100G soon, that will exponentially increase network capacity.

Someone has to pay for that, and it only makes that users in some way are responsible for what they use.

I've read some media accounts that compare what Time Warner is doing to Comcast's alleged BitTorrent throttling. In my view that's a bit like comparing apples and oranges -- while they're both fruits with vitamin C, they are both different.

In fact, a good deal of what Comcast is doing also is not properly understood. Let's begin with a concept: traffic shaping, which is something that every sane network administrator in America should be doing today.

What traffic shaping does is it helps to prioritize traffic, such that low-latency traffic gets priority over traffic that isn't at risk from latency.

For example, it makes a lot of sense for an enterprise network to prioritize VoIP traffic, since it is at risk from latency -- which could cause packet loss and jitter. On a phone call, if you suffer from either, you lose words and aren't able to have a full conversation.

In contrast, P2P (and leave your feelings about its usage at the door) is not at risk from latency. The transfer will still happen even with some latency -- though it may be delayed by a second or two. For voice conversations over VoIP, a second or two is unacceptable.

Traffic throttling, which is a byproduct of traffic shaping, essentially goes a little further in slowing down certain traffic (and in some cases blocking it) to allow higher priority traffic.

Traffic shaping is good network policy to maintain the integrity of networks, both carrier and enterprise. While I don't agree with full-fledged traffic blocking (aside from botnet-type traffic), prioritization is not something that should be taboo.

Fundamentally, it's about recognizing that network resources are finite and that there are costs associated with access.

I think it's great to insulate residential users from the larger network issues -- they just don't need to know. What they do need, however, is responsible disclosure from their network access providers so they can choose the access that fits their needs and get what they pay for.

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