Usage Caps and the DLC Model
I just read an intriguing post by Mike Masnick over at Techdirt. Masnick points out that ISPs keep changing the definition of appropriate monthly usage. When an ISP adjusts the amount of usage it deems appropriate, demonstrating network congestion becomes a whole lot easier. It also pushes consumers toward purchasing higher tier services–with higher usage limits. Users, therefore, often end up paying more for something they once received as standard service.
As an avid gamer, it seems to me that this model is similar to the overwhelming surge of Downloadable Content (DLC) seen in the gaming sector in recent years. DLC encompasses everything from new maps or weapons in first-person shooters to new clothing for a playable character to new cars in driving games. It even includes roster updates or new stadiums in sports games.
For years, downloadable content was just a bonus to gamers and a free service provided by the game developer. But thanks to the ascent of Xbox Live (and, to a lesser extent, Electronic Arts’ push for fee based content) these same post-release additions in gaming are increasingly becoming small transaction purchases. The most famous DLC to date may be Oblivion’s Horse Armor. It was just some armor for your horse—that’s it. But someone reading this post paid for it, I assure you.
The opposition to this newfound model of DLC was that it blurred the lines between what was truly extra content outside the core game and what was being stripped out—or held back—from the core game so that the developer could later sell it back to consumers.
I think this same model applies to Masnick’s post. The real question here is, “what should we be getting in the first place?”
Having lived in Australia, I’d point out to Masnick that countries in Oceania are probably outliers in how we should look at Internet provision. Countries in Oceania have ridiculously subpar broadband by North American standards, and because of that tiny broadband caps are actually commonplace for consumers in those countries. I recall my roommate and I cracking our monthly 1 gig usage cap quite frequently simply by downloading iTunes music and podcasts and playing Battlefield 2 and Final Fantasy 11 a few nights a week. So it is not a surprise that Mr. Lessig had a run in with a cap in New Zealand. But the assertion of his provider that he was doing something unethical is practically absurd.
The best way to dissuade companies from implementing low bandwidth caps is consumer revolt. There’s also an argument to be made that we end users have been subject to some kind of usage cap, whether we knew it or not. There is evidence that ISPs such as Comcast have long enforced a ‘soft’ usage cap and terminated violating customers. Now, Comcast has a 250 GB monthly cap, which is widely considered to be pretty reasonable. I seriously doubt the majority of broadband users are even approaching a quarter terabyte of data transfer each month. And those that do so, and do so for good reason, will most likely pony up for a higher tier of service. I believe, however, that if this type of behavior continues, and service providers drop caps to the levels of those ISPs in places like Australia, consumers will not stand for it and demand change.
While ‘normal Internet use’ (whatever that means) may have at one point in time been a few hundred megabytes a month, Internet innovations have certainly increased the amount of bandwidth that the average consumer uses each month simply by downloading music, watching streaming video, and being involved in rich social networking experiences. Someone that downloads a Hi-Def copy of a weekly tv series (such as Mr. Lessig) has already committed roughly 4 gigs of their usage at the beginning of every month. Certainly, caps need to be consistent with the evolution of what average or normal use is in a given month. If caps exist, as long as they are being adjusted reasonably, there shouldn’t be an issue. If normal usage rises, and caps decrease, then Masnick is onto something that can probably only be solved by consumer revolt.