Clear caps? Great. $1.50/GB Overage fees? Wait a !@$% minute...
What seemed like a vague industry possibility just a few months ago now seems like an inevitable certainty. Multiple carriers in North America are now either employing or considering monthly caps where users pay per gigabyte should they "over eat." But the move begs a number of questions. Not least of which is whether opening the door to overage fees invites a broadband future where ISPs use the nebulous specter of "excessive use" as a new piggy bank -- and as a pre-emptive weapon against competing content.
Once we've agreed to the monetization of "excessive consumption," what stops ISPs from constantly lowering their definition of "excessive," while hiking user penalties?
Earlier this week I broke the news
that Comcast is considering implementing a 250GB monthly cap, with a $15 penalty for each 10GB over that cap you travel. I've been reading through the various subsequent coverage (Associated Press
, New York Times
) , and came across this Business Week
report. In it, Time Warner Cable spokesman Alex Dudley confirms they're still on track to begin testing their own overage system. If you recall, we also broke the news
of that system, which could come with caps as low as 5GB per month.
The public backlash apparently didn't scare Time Warner Cable away from the project. While Time Warner Cable and Comcast are still cooking their overage plans, Canadian cable operator Rogers just became the first major North American broadband operator to implement such a system
(60GB cap, between $1.25-$5 per additional gigabyte). Some smaller U.S. cable broadband providers like Oregon based BendBroadband
have also embraced the idea (10-50GB cap, $1.50 per additional gigabyte).
If the caps are generous (and Comcast's 250GB cap is), being clear about them is certainly a welcome shift. However, many caps won't be so generous. And the sudden decision by the U.S. broadband industry to adopt a system where "excessive use" is punished by per-GB charges raises a lot
of new questions.
What's To Keep FiOS From Eating Cable's Lunch?
Verizon has thus-far said they won't cap or restrict
their FiOS FTTH service. With the cable industry suddenly imposing overage charges on high-consumption users, it immediately puts them at further marketing disadvantage to a product they're already afraid of. Sure, 250GB is reasonable, but it won't be hard for Verizon or AT&T's ad agency to make cable broadband service seem miserly. Cable won't have to worry about Qwest, who has their own invisible consumption ceiling
and hasn't invested in fiber to the home.
What Will Keep Caps And Overage Fees Reasonable?
Honestly, what's to keep investor pressure from constantly forcing caps downward and overage fees upward? Unless you're living in denial, we can generally agree that most broadband markets in the United States consist of a largely uncompetitive duopoly. In order to please investors and create consistent quarter over quarter growth, ISPs have been selling everything that isn't nailed down (your personal browsing data
and even your typing mistakes
Does anyone really believe that once overages become commonplace, the general trend won't be consistently lower caps and consistently higher overage fees? Once we've agreed to the monetization of "excessive consumption," what stops ISPs from constantly lowering their definition of "excessive," while hiking user penalties? The highly lobbied FCC? A bickering Congress? A cap that begins as reasonable can quickly become oppressive.
ISP Usage Meters Suck
Sorry to be blunt. Don't believe me? Spend some quality time in our HughesNet
or Wild Blue
satellite broadband forums talking to users of these services. Both providers cap monthly use, then throttle customers who exceed consumption limits. The provided meters for these providers have been so unreliable, many customers have been forced to code their own
. Australia ISP Telstra created a billing nightmare
when they tried to accurately track consumption back in 2002. Hopefully Time Warner Cable and Comcast do a better job.
If we agree that independent video is a direct and serious threat to cable television revenue, and we agree that the bandwidth needed for HD services will only grow, then what stops any cable operator from lowering the definition of "reasonable consumption" to deter use of competing HD services?
Usage Caps and Overages Impact Content Competition
It's a constant meme thrown out by network neutrality supporters, but it's true. The future consists of any number of bandwidth eating services that haven't been invented yet. The present consists of multiple, independent operators trying to force high-definition content down Comcast's pipe. DirecTV is launching an HD-delivery system that uses your bandwidth as a VOD delivery vessel
Time Warner Cable's overage trials involve caps ranging from 5GB to 40GB per month
. If we agree that independent video is a direct and serious threat to Time Warner Cable television revenue, and we agree that the bandwidth needed for HD services will only grow, then what stops any cable operator from lowering the definition of "reasonable consumption" to deter use of competing HD services?
Why Not Just Make Gluttons Pay For a Business-Class Tier?
Time Warner Cable and Comcast agree that "bandwidth hogs" make up a very small portion of their overall subscriber base. Comcast pegs the number of bandwidth hogs as the top 0.1% of their user base (14,000 customers out of Comcast's 14.1 million users). Time Warner Cable argues that 5% of their subscribers utilize over half of the total network bandwidth. So why would TWC want to impose a 5GB cap on lower-tier users?
These ISPs could
simply force these high-consumption users to a more expensive business tier. Instead, they're choosing to monetize "excessive consumption." This is happening just at a point when their bread and butter income (TV and its endless rate hikes) is being threatened by alternative video. It's fair to ask whether the move is less about network strain, and more about a pre-emptive strike against competing video delivery systems.
Is This A Prelude To Billing By The Byte?
I've talked at length
with multiple ISP executives who say their companies have no plan to currently shift from a flat-rate pricing model (the current U.S. standard) to a bill-by-the-byte model. The truth is that existing profit margins (particularly for VoIP) are very healthy, and many U.S. consumers already feel they pay too much for what they get. It's an uphill battle to convince consumers they should pay more, to get less.
The general consensus among executives seems to be that they'd love to migrate to such a model, but they're afraid of consumer backlash. But what if you could warm the public to per-byte billing via baby steps? What if you could convince Joe consumer that a bandwidth apocalypse is looming
thanks to video and P2P, and per-byte billing is a "necessary evil" to save the Internet as we know it?
This Is About More Than 250GB Being Reasonable
To be clear, I do think having reasonable caps on consumption is vastly superior to nebulous caps, vague enforcement, and the throttling of upstream P2P traffic. But while I embrace clear caps, I think a shift toward per-GB overages is a dangerous
migration that could have serious repercussions down the line for consumers and content competition. This is a door, once opened, that can't be stepped back through.