Let Them Eat Bandwidth?
The Boston Globe reported that Comcast cut off a user for too much downloading. I applaud Globe calling attention to these kind of abuses by Comcast and other providers and I encourage them to pursue this topic and ask why we have to ask permission to communicate.14-Mar-2007

The Boston Globe recently posted a story about Comcast cutting off a user who “downloaded too much”. I want to encourage the Globe and others to do a more in-depth story on this topic. Computerworld also covered this story.

Not so fast, broadband providers tell big users Firms impose limits even as demand rises

By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff | March 12, 2007

Amanda Lee of Cambridge received a call from Comcast Corp. in December ordering her to curtail her Web use or lose her high-speed Internet connection for a year.

Lee, who said she had been using the same broadband connection for years without a problem, was taken aback. But when she asked what the download limit was, she was told there was no limit, that she was just downloading too much.

Then in mid-February, her Internet service was cut off without further warning.

For Lee and an increasing number of people, a high-speed Internet connection is a lifeline to everyday entertainment and communication. Television networks are posting shows online; retailers are lining up to offer music and movie downloads; thousands of Internet radio stations stream music; more people are using WiFi phones; and “over the top TV,” in which channels stream over the Internet, is predicted to grow.

That means that more customers may become familiar with Comcast’s little-known acceptable-use policy, which allows the company to cut off service to customers who use the Internet too much. Comcast says that only .01 percent of its 11.5 million residential high-speed Internet customers fall into this category.

As I wrote in “Our CFR” the coax and fiber are fixed assets and the bandwidth available depends on how these paths are configured. As with the wires in our homes there is no significant ongoing cost. We just have a small cost for maintenance. Only a tiny portion is being used for “Internet”.

So what is this asset that is supposedly being consumed?

Comcast has no trouble sending a hundred television channels all day all the time and that consumes many times what any Internet user can possibly use. Why does Comcast make such profligate use of the coax while limiting its users to a trickle of what they call “Internet” as if it were another television channel?

If Amanda Lee has been using her Comcast connection to communicate with her friends in Cambridge then Comcast is simply being punitive based on some arbitrary and undocumented measure. It’s not as if you consume “Internet” like you use “electricity” – if anything users contribute to the whole not take from it.

Reading the rest of the article things get even stranger – Verizon responded that their bandwidth hogs don’t affect their neighbors. Why are these companies calling their best customers hogs – what other business does that? Verizon’s comments imply that they are only concerned with the usage of the pipes they control and not the cost of reaching the rest of the world. The fiber and coax are fixed assets that don’t get “consumed”. When deploying new fiber there is very little additional cost for providing much more capacity – additional fibers are trivial compared with the cost of climbing the poles in the first place.

In today’s model of for-profit transport (imagine if we ran each road as a profit center) there is a cost to using (transiting) other people’s networks. But the carriers contain much of the traffic within their own networks. Yet Verizon didn’t cite that as an issue and neither did Comcast. Is there any reason to assume they understand their own economics and accounting? With so much fiber in the ground perhaps they don’t – it’s as if they were trying to make money running a canal across an ocean of bits.

Once you realize that we’re hearing “just so stories” rather than defensible explanations you start to wonder why we aren’t treating the wires in our neighborhoods just like wires in our homes. The home networks can now run at a gigabit per second with no ongoing cost. We should treat the wires in our communities just like we treat the streets—as community infrastructure.

For that matter, why have we subjugated our inalienable right to communicate to a companies whose only motivation is to maximize their profit by making it as expensive to communicate as they can?

The reason is simple - we are confusing the Internet with telecommunications when there is no direct relationship other then having to wend our way past the transport owned by privileged service providers (AKA, carriers). This is what we did using modems to get past the voice network. Common carriage laws protected our right to do so – we no longer have such protection which is why network neutrality is such an important issue. But it’s not enough if our local (first and last mile) paths are locked into broadband. We tend to confuse broadband with the Internet but it’s just the opposite—the purpose of broadband is to deliver services. It’s far from neutral with almost all capacity dedicated to the providers own services because they claim that video bits don’t count. They also deploy as little additional capacity as they can in order to make sure we can’t use the Internet to avoid buying their services.

Too bad people confuse the Internet with Broadband. As we see, we get only a trickle of “Internet” with broadband while the rest is used by the carriers for their own purposes. How can one ask for network neutrality when the playing field is already vertical? The Internet is ultimately about our ability to create our solutions—that’s why it is has improved so rapidly whereas telecommunication is moribund—a 2007 DSL line runs at the same speed it did in 1987! The basic presumption of telecommunications is that only a phone company can create a telephone call. Today we know we can do far better for less ourselves as Skype and others demonstrate.

We also need to be cautious about the “broadband gap”. It’s true you can get high speed connections at a low price in some countries but we should ask why that hasn’t had a major impact on those societies. They still pay for TV as a separate service and when you leave your PC you are disconnected. Fast connections are nice but pervasive coverage is vital.

Once we stop confusing the Internet with telecom we’ll ask why we don’t own our local facilities like we own the roads. Why must our ability to communicate be limited by companies whose only motivation is to maximize what we pay? Would we tolerate having to pay a taxi company every time we drove our own cars? And why can’t we take it to the next step and have complete wireless coverage without having to hope we have the right billing relationships in the right places at the right times in order to get a few bits when we need them. You don’t want to have to negotiate a fee when you’ve fallen down and need help.

I’m glad the Globe did more than just report. The questions are only a start. What does it mean to “devour bandwidth”? Is that like devouring a newspaper by reading too hard? I may devour the Globe but only in a way that makes it more valuable not less. The Internet grows as we find ways to make use of it.

It’s nearly 75 years since the 1934 communications act. At that time its mission of assuring a viable telecommunications industry was considered synonymous with serving the community. Today it’s still pursuing that mission but has lost sight of the purpose. The Internet has empowered us and this threatens the very existence of telecommunications as industry. But instead of recognizing that the world has changed and providing us with abundant infrastructure it is acceding to the industry’s publicly stated (http://www.frankston.com/?Name=AssuringScarcity) need for limiting our ability to solve our own problems. In the US this translates as treating the First Amendment as subservient to preserving an industry whose time has past – or should’ve.

Here in Newton, Massachusetts it’s nice to have three broadband providers but I realize that it means I’m paying for all three (on the average) and yet we still don’t have wireless coverage. I pay and pay for what we should own.

Perhaps the time has come for the Globe to dig deeper. This is especially timely as our Governor wants to make sure that everyone in Massachusetts is connected. This will only work if we understand what that means and don’t limit ourselves to a few gleanings we find by the side of the broadband service pipes.