I’m beginning to think “no” is the definitive answer. While most tend to understand the basic concepts of Internet connectivity and its associated parts, it seems that it is becoming abundantly clear that terminology has been misused by media and public organizations such that no one really understands what they are even talking about anymore.
It’s understandable that people who don’t work in the telecommunications sector are unfamiliar with networking. But a group of writers that should understand these concepts are the individuals that are paid to write for PCWorld.
Today, David Coursey discussed the recent decision of Time Warner Cable to back off its plans to test metered broadband service in an essay strangely entitled, “Why Metered Broadband Would Work”. It’s odd, because he describes why TWC is up to no good and why metered broadband is greedy.
The column states that metering broadband service violates net neutrality and concludes that, “anything that hinders Internet neutrality hinders the development of new technologies and new business models.”
Where do I begin? First of all, net neutrality has nothing to do with metered broadband service. Nothing.
Metered broadband has nothing to do with how fast your connection is.
Metered broadband is a cap on the total amount of data you transfer during a given billing cycle. That’s it. There is nothing more to it than that. It has nothing to do with giving certain packets priority. It has nothing to do with preventing the use of certain applications or equipment (like a VoIP handset) on your computer. It has nothing to do with blocking access to sites that have competing content. And it has nothing to do with Quality of Service.
Let’s look at this in different terminology. The speed at which you travel in your car has nothing to do with the number of miles you choose to travel in a given month. If you were to rent a car, and your rental agreement dictated that you could not travel more than 100 miles in 30 days, (assuming speed limits and the police were not a factor) you could travel at whatever speed you desired until you traversed 100 miles. In this case, whatever connection speed you have from TWC would not change. If you had a 10 meg connection, you would still get a 10 meg connection. The difference is the number of miles you could travel on the Internet in a given billing cycle, not the speed at which you could get there.
Interestingly enough, metered broadband is a new business model that Coursey claims Internet neutrality would hinder. Since metered broadband has nothing to do with Internet neutrality, and the column claims that in a recession the last thing we need to do is hinder new models, then this was the perfect opportunity to allow the free market to test a new model.
Metered broadband does cap the total amount of data that an individual can transfer in a given month. That is not a negative thing, though. Transfer speeds and data transferred are two different things. The first is the speed at which data could potentially be transferred to or from your computer. These are commonly referred to as “downstream” and “upstream”. Over a given billing cycle — generally a month — an individual receives data and sends data by surfing the Internet, receiving email, using instant messaging, etc. The benefit of a bandwidth cap is that it creates tiers that allow for more affordable service, and open up the doors of barred entry to individuals that could not previously afford Internet service.
TWC reports that their users in the Austin, TX area averaged 5-6 gig a month. A benefit of metered service is that if a user falls into this category, there is no reason for them to be spending $50-$75 a month for unlimited access. This is similar to a cell phone plan, in that if you don’t talk 3,000 minutes a month, purchasing the 3,000 minute or unlimited plan would be a major waste of money when you could get a lower plan for far cheaper. TWC was proposing lower-priced tiers combined with higher fees for heavy users. A relatively basic plan would have offered 5 GB a month for $29, and a more robust tier would have offered 15 GB a month for $40, all the way up to unlimited plans for $150.
Metered service could be a major benefit for most average or below average users. The only people that it hurts are Bittorrent fiends. Additionally, those that use larger amounts of data on movie streaming services would have probably fallen into a data tier that was similarly priced to what they were paying before a switch to metered service.
Something that Coursey hints at, but never comes right out to explain, is the concern that caps are in response to television and movie distribution on the Internet. The implication is that monthly caps would deter individuals from watching TV online, causing them to return to the couch where profits are higher. It is a certainty that cable providers do not want to simply become sellers of bits. But the individuals that are concerned of this notion that caps force individuals into higher caps, or that they are somehow being cut off from certain services is really just silly.
Consumers are not forced to use the Internet. They have the right to determine how much data they will transfer in a month and purchase an appropriate tier. This occurs every day when consumers purchase cell phones. They purchase the tier that is suitable for their needs. This approach by TWC opened the door to allow low volume users to have very affordable rates. Yes, the higher cap tiers were arguably pricey. But that isn’t a reason for the media to create such a false state of fear over the issue that the entire trial is pulled. The free market would have caused those tiers to adjust and match companies offerings like Comcast’s 250 gig cap.
Coursey is right about one thing. In these dreadful economic times, we don’t need to be hindering new business models. It’s too bad the noise heavily outweighed the signal on this issue and caused TWC to back off on something that most likely would have saved the majority of their customers a great deal of cash.