Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Net Neutrality: No Caps on Internet Bandwidth!

ISP's have been warning us for a long time that the bandwidth on the Internet is exhausting. The doom's day when we will not be able to use the Internet is pretty close. They have attributed this problem to a variety of reasons: a small group of users consuming significantly more bandwidth than others, some applications like bit-torrent consuming the entire bandwidth, some websites like youtube consuming the bandwidth, etc. Solutions with respect to each of these problems were proposed respectively: capping user bandwidth and penalizing for any extra bandwidth, use protocol shapers that slow down (read discriminate) certain protocols, or charge the website owner like youtube for reaching the customer.

Cory Doctrow in his guardian article argues that all of these mechanisms are designed to prohibit people from using the Internet. I have been always against middle boxes like Packeteer that restrict bandwidth usage based on protocol because such discrimination is arbitrary and can be used to used to target and extort any application they want. Similarly, charging websites for reaching their customers is totally flawed as this can again be extortionist. And as Cory points out that it can also be used to curb public protests and free speech. In his words:

"by allowing ISPs to silently block access to sites that displease them, we invite all the ills that accompany censorship – Telus, a Canadian telcom that blocked access to a site established by its striking workers where they were airing their grievances."

I used to think that the solution in which ISP's fix the total data transfered over a month, is fair. This solution was not discriminatory to any particular website or application. However, I did not realize that such policy can significantly hinder the free usage of Internet. As Cory says:

But the real problem of per-usage billing is that no one – not even the most experienced internet user – can determine in advance how much bandwidth they're about to consume before they consume it. Before you clicked on this article, you had no way of knowing how many bytes your computer would consume before clicking on it. And now that you've clicked on it, chances are that you still don't know how many bytes you've consumed. Imagine if a restaurant billed you by the number of air-molecules you displaced during your meal, or if your phone-bills varied on the total number of syllables you uttered at 2dB or higher.

Actually in India, people who exceed the bandwidth cap are penalized significantly. So capping bandwidth usage with penalties is either going to scare off people from using the bandwidth or too conservative to try any new website or application on the Internet.

If we do not want any restrictions and ISP's keep claiming of the clogging routers, what is the solution. If ISP's keep adding more bandwidth, we probably don't need to talk about it. But if they keep insisting, what is the type of plan that I may agree to. The only thing that I may agree to is a price model which is incentive based for using more bandwidth. So it can be at a fixed cost till say 10GB a month and then they can charge me at a reduced rate for next 10GB. Such graduated rate will give more incentive for people to try new stuff on Internet. After all we want more people to freely use the Internet without worrying about the details that they do not understand.


freemind said...

"But the real problem of per-usage billing is that no one – not even the most experienced internet user – can determine in advance how much bandwidth they're about to consume before they consume it."

I don't think it is really a problem. people can and do learn from their experience how much they "typically" use and chose a plan based on her typical usage. it's ok to cross the plan limit occasionally and pay for it at a higher rate. if this keeps recurring, go for a plan with bigger quota.

however, the more fundamental question that you bring up is, should people be penalized for higher usage, or incentivized? given that the bandwidth is a finite resource which ISPs provision between users, former seems the right thing to do.

Sushant said...

@freemind: I think you are missing a fundamental point that the uncertainty of bandwidth usage in various applications/websites/media-sources is going to deter people from trying out new things on the Internet. And the fact that fewer things on the Internet are going to be tried is the main problem.

I am personally very cautious of using the apps on my android phone because of exactly the above mentioned reason and the hefty charges for overshooting the limit.

There is no one company providing the bandwidth that it can decide on what the "finite" bandwidth is and start rationing. But in a good competitive economy companies may offer such higher bandwidth limits that rationing may become a bad business decision. And I know companies like Tata Indicom which have lost ton of customers for insisting on this "finite resource" and severely penalizing its customers.

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