Not So Broadband?

Stephen Yagielowicz

Broadband Internet access; the long promised and rapidly being realized future of online communications may not be as bright as some ISPs and content provider’s marketing departments might have you believe.

Attempting to balance the demand for high connection speeds with economy of service in the face of bandwidth-intensive offerings such as file swapping, online games, and video on demand services, ISPs are increasingly implementing arbitrary – and unspecified – limits on system usage. While currently an issue for cable providers, the access caps may become a common limitation of DSL accounts as well.

So far, the access caps have been limited to the heaviest of users, whom the ISPs feel are a burden on their networks. While this might seem reasonable, the policy must be seen in context of many provider’s claims of “unlimited” Internet access, along with their refusal to specify at what point a user exceeds their “quota.”

And “quota” is not a word that ISPs like to use, as it puts them at a competitive disadvantage, especially when consumers are seeking, and used to finding, “unlimited” access. This reluctance does not dissuade some broadband providers from quietly sending letters threatening account termination unless bandwidth usage dramatically decreases, while still not revealing what an “acceptable level of usage” might be.

According to Joe Laszlo, an analyst for Jupiter Research, “The industry is leery of explicit caps, because even people who don't come anywhere near the caps feel like something is being taken away from them. [ISPs] can’t claim their service is unlimited if there is some kind of informal limit.”

Although most of Cox Communications broadband subscribers are now limited to 2 gigabytes of transfer a day, they are one of the only ISPs setting a hard and fast limit. Comcast’s terms of service forbid users from “representing an unusually large burden on the network,” with their top 1% of broadband bandwidth users (accounting for 28% of the company’s overall bandwidth consumption) receiving letters informing them that they were in violation of the company’s terms of service. To further refine the picture, Comcast claims that their busiest 6% of customers account for a full 78% of the company’s bandwidth usage, leaving 22% of the total transfer done by the remaining 94% of customers – an imbalance that the company hopes to redress,

Joe Laszlo commented on the reason ISPs need caps: “It’s partly just so the economics make sense; if you’ve got someone downloading 60 gigabytes a month and paying $29.95, it’s hard to make it work.”

It’s clear that especially at the lower tiers of service, ISPs will be forced to limit usage for their broadband customers, particularly when feature length video on demand services become more widespread. This factor should also be considered by adult content providers who may wish to limit their offerings despite their overall perception of an audience with “unlimited” viewing capabilities.

Like the fat guy at the “all you can eat” buffet who’s told to leave because he’s eaten too much, it appears that certain ISPs want to have it both ways: luring customers with promises of plenty, then slapping those who seek an extra helping. ~ Stephen