The fledgling high-tech community in the smokey little hipster ghetto called Austin is apoplectic about Time Warner’s announcement that it’s testing bandwidth caps in central Texas:
When it comes to trialing its metered broadband service, Time Warner Cableâ€™s choice to do so in the tech-savvy city of Austin, Texas, was no accident. And residents may not be able to do much about it.
According to TWC spokesman Jeff Simmermon, Austinâ€™s dedication to all things digital was precisely why it was chosen as one of four cities where the company plans to trial consumption-based broadband plans, which range from 5 GB to 40 GB per month (TWC says it has plans for a 100 GB-per-month tier as well). â€œAustin is a passionate and tech-savvy city, and the spirit that weâ€™re approaching this (metered broadband) test with is that if itâ€™s going to work, it has to work in a tech-savvy market where the use patterns are different,â€ he told me.
So far, Austin isnâ€™t impressed, but since the local cable franchise it grants only deals with video, there may not be much it can do. Chip Rosenthal, one of seven commissioners on the City of Austinâ€™s Technology and Telecommunications Commission (a strictly advisory body), hopes that concerned citizens will show up at the meeting itâ€™s holding at City Hall this Wednesday and talk about metered broadband. He wants to get the metered bandwidth issue added to the agenda of the commissionâ€™s May meeting as well.
Rosenthal, a contract programmer who likes open source, has a blog where he holds forth on the issue, calling its rationale a series of “red herrings,” and complaining that the caps of the present will hurt applications of the future. This is no doubt true, but ultimately another red herring. The caps of the future won’t necessarily be the caps of the present.
The general theory is that TWC wants to stamp out web video in order to keep TV customers in the VoD fold. I don’t doubt that TWC would like to do that, but I doubt they’re dumb enough to believe they could ever get away with it. Austin is a stoner’s throw from San Antonio, the world headquarters of AT&T and the beta site for U-verse, the IPTV service that rides into the home atop VDSL. While U-verse isn’t universally available in Austin yet, it’s under construction so there are alternatives.
TWC’s CEO has issued a blog post by way of clarification that’s not entirely helpful:
With regard to consumption-based billing, we have determined that as broadband usage and penetration grow, there are increasing differences in the amount of bandwidth our customers consume. Our current pricing plans require all users to pay the same amount, whether they check email once a month or download six movies a day. As the amount of usage has dramatically diverged among users, this is becoming inherently unfair and not the way most consumers want to pay for goods they consume.
Like Rosenthal’s post, it’s true as far as it goes, but leaves runners in scoring position. Here’s the real story, as I see it: while Time Warner doesn’t have a large enough network to peer with the big boys (AT&T, Verizon, Qwest, Comcast, and L3,) it does have some peering agreements that protect it from transit charges as long as they deliver their packets to convenient locations, as well as some straight-up transit charges to pay. Their aggregation network – the links that carry data between the Internet exchange points and their CMTS’s – isn’t fat enough to support full-on DOCSIS 3 usage, and neither is its transit budget.
Consequently, they’re being hammered by the small number of high-bandwidth consumers in their network, and they’re looking to cut costs by running them off. While there are other ways to ensure fairness across user accounts, the cap is the best way to address the fraction of a percent who use something like half their available bandwidth.
TWC is betting that they can find a cap level that discourages hogs and doesn’t bother more typical users. They’re going into an area close to the heart of AT&T with the experiment to get a good sense of where that limit is.
VoD has a little bit to do with this, but not all that much. TWC customers with TiVo’s already have unlimited VoD, and the rest of the VoD they provide doesn’t cost transit dollars, it’s delivered over their local tree. DOCSIS 3 also doesn’t have much of anything to do with this, as it’s also a local service, albeit one with the potential to ring up big transit charges if not domesticated.
To a large extent, ISP’s play a marketing game where they advertise super-fast services that aren’t backed up by sufficient transit or peering to sustain a heavy duty cycle. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, as the efficient sharing of capacity is actually the Internet’s secret sauce. If we wanted peak and minimum bandwidth to be the same, we would have stuck with narrow-band modems on the PSTN. But we don’t, so we have to get hip to statistical sharing of network resources.
I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that the typical Austin consumer won’t switch to U-verse on account of TWC’s caps, but the heaviest users of gaming and BitTorrent will. And I’ll further predict that TWC’s bottom line will be glad to see them go.
The arguments against caps ultimately come down to the assertion that there’s some public good in making light users of Internet access capacity subsidize heavy users. Given that most of the heavy uses are either piracy or personal entertainment, I don’t happen to buy that argument, and moreover I find the alternatives to capping are generally less attractive, as they typically involve duty cycle restrictions of other types. The alternative that TWC should explore is peak/off peak handling that allows downloaders to utilize less restrictive bandwidth budgets at off hours.
I’d prefer to have a network that allowed me to label all of my traffic with the service level I expected, and scheduled and charged it appropriately. We don’t have that network yet, but we will one day as long as neutrality regulations don’t get in the way. Alternatively, a fat pipe to a Tier 1 like Verizon would be a better deal, but we can’t all buy one today either.