One analyst has had it with Internet data caps. Bandwidth hogs are a myth, he says, and caps simply penalize heavy users who cause no problems for others. Now, he’s throwing down the gauntlet and challenging ISPs to turn over some data for analysis.
There’s a spectre haunting Internet service providers—the spectre of the “bandwidth hog.” But does the mythical beast really exist? One telecom analyst is dubious, and he’s calling out the ISPs.
Benoit Felten is a Yankee Group analyst who covers fiber to the home issues from Paris, but his “bandwidth hog” challenge is a product of his personal blog, fiberevolution. Felten is a knowledgeable voice on fiber issues, and his blog reliably makes for an interesting read, but it rarely takes the adversarial tone it struck today.
Hunting the mythical bandwidth hog
Felten’s basic critique concerns bandwidth caps—not because they exist, but because he sees them as disingenuous. Carriers can use them as a way to control bandwidth and wean people away from what the marketing department implicitly promises: all-you-can-surf Internet access for one monthly fee. The caps are sold as cutting off “bandwidth hogs” who use “more than their fair share,” but Felten’s take is that ISPs really have no idea if these people are causing any sort of actual congestion at all.
ISPs “claim that bandwidth hogs steal all the bandwidth and cause network congestion, and therefore their behavior harms all the other regular and peaceful law-abiding users,” he writes. “And to add insult to injury, they pay the same price as the others! No, policing and rationing must be applied by the benevolent telco to protect the innocent. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, the way that telcos identify the Bandwidth Hogs is not by monitoring if they cause unfair traffic congestion for other users. No, they just measure the total data downloaded per user, list the top 5 percent and call them hogs.”
That is, ISPs are going after “heavy users” simply for being “heavy users,” not necessarily because their usage causes problems for anyone. Imagine that some of these crazed downloaders are BitTorrent fiends (not a real brain-stretcher, that idea) and that they have their client set to do most of its downloading in the wee hours. At the end of the month, they may end up in the top tier of ISP subscribers even without causing problems for anyone. So why cap based on total monthly data transfer, rather than capping or throttling based on actual congestion problems?
Felten doesn’t get into the answer to this question in great detail, though he does say it’s “actually an admission that telcos are uncomfortable with the ‘all you can eat’ broadband schemes that they themselves introduced on the market to get people to subscribe.” One might also suspect that some companies (*cough* Time Warner Cable *cough*) may see low caps as a way to extract more cash from subscribers. (For ISPs like Comcast, with decent 250GB caps that aren’t exceeded by more than a tiny fraction of the company’s subscriber base, this doesn’t currently seem to be a motivator for the caps.)
In any event, Felten wants to see data showing that caps actually relieve congestion, not just punish heavy users. So he throws down a gauntlet to ISPs.
“Here’s a challenge for them: in the next few days, I will specify on this blog a standard dataset that would enable me to do an in-depth data analysis into network usage by individual users. Any telco willing to actually understand what’s happening there and to answer the question on the existence of hogs once and for all can extract that data and send it over to me, I will analyse it for free, on my spare time. All I ask is that they let me publish the results of said research (even though their names need not be mentioned if they don’t wish it to be). Of course, if I find myself to be wrong and if indeed I manage to identify users that systematically degrade the experience for other users, I will say so publicly. If, as I suspect, there are no such users, I will also say so publicly. The data will back either of these assertions.”
If Felten is right, then the “bandwidth hog” is an imaginary creature for the digital age, a sort of postindustrial unicorn. Unlike the unicorn, however, bandwidth hog makes terrific eating; its bacon is the single tastiest kind of bacon imaginable, shot through with the flavors of 4chan, the essence of Twitter, and a small pinch of TechCrunch (warning: it’s pretty pungent). If Felten does slay the mythical beast, Internet hipsters everywhere can rejoice… then slap crispy strips of bandwidth hog bacon into their vodka and ice cream.