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Net neutrality and bandwidth caps don't matter

Comment They have nothing to do with the Internet
Tue May 05 2009, 20:52

THERE HAS BEEN a lot of talk lately over usage quotas on cable modems and how some are fair and others are not at all. The problem that most people don't get is that the numbers have nothing to do with the Internet, the entire argument is a diversion.

Cable companies are throwing the idea of usage quotas out now, starting absurdly low in order to get something in place. With tactics that would make Karl Rove proud, they are picking a fight over nothing to get their opponents to agree on a cap, any cap, without realizing the true goals.

The cable monopolies don't actually give a damn about how much data goes over their wires. They don't care if you are surfing to the local newspaper or sucking down leaks of awful Hollywood lowest common denominator films, it is irrelevant to them. Bandwidth costs are almost zero, and given how things are set up, there is no way a single person or even a small number can max out the bandwidth of a cable loop.

DSL providers and other related bandwidth merchants, most with less bandwidth per household have no problem with 'over usage', so why does cable? The caps cable companies are trying to impose don't make sense when you look at the technology involved and the bandwidths available, bandwidth usage isn't an issue at all.

If it isn't about bandwidth, then what are all these quotas about? Keeping the cable TV monopoly a monopoly. No, really, it is. The set up goes like this. Cable companies whine about bandwidth, then trial all sorts of silly anti-consumer and illegal measures like DPI to fire people up. Angry consumers respond and say that they will not tolerate those measures. Eventually, even paid for politicians will chime in around election season, and these 'alternate' measures will be shot down. DPI and packet classification will be effectively outlawed. That is OK though, they were straw men.

From there, cable companies will keep whining about bandwidth overuse, and the 'few' who 'abuse' the system. This is also a straw man, but they will claim usage quotas are necessary to keep the 'abusers' from hurting others, keep piracy down, keep their routers from melting, allowing them to make enough to pay for upgrades, or whatever is the current problem in the headlines. Think of it like The War on Communism/Drugs/Terror/Free Thought, the enemy is out there and undefinable, so don't question our motives.

After the problems of DPI and packet classification, the two sides meet in the 'middle', usage quotas. Then the fight becomes how big to make them, but the war is already lost. Evil organizations like Time Warner set the caps as low as 5GB/month while charging more than my 3G phone provider (T-Mobile FWIW) does for the same data transfer. Much more in fact.

On the high side, some like Comcast, entirely evil in new and less savory ways, set the limits at 250GB a month. They argue that even the most abusive downloader that likes Hollywood, Bollywood, and Norwegian films will have a hard time hitting those caps.

Let's be kind and look at a cap higher than anyone has proposed, 300GB/month. Assuming that a month has 30 days, that means 10GB a day, more than enough for anyone, right? How can anyone claim that they realistically need more than that? That is over 100KBps(10,000/24/60/60 = .116). Lets just call it 1 Megabit bandwidth usage, and say that if you use 1Mbps 24/7, you will barely avoid the cap.

1Mbps is peanuts, a somewhat modern cable loop can handle everyone on it using that bandwidth and have tons left over. That isn't enough to strain their routers anywhere but the oldest COs, and with DOCSIS 3.0 going up in many places, that load will be effectively zero for the cable companies. Bandwidth is not a problem, and the caps are a straw man.

Again, so why the fuss? Think about this, a Blu-Ray movie data stream can take up to 54Mbps. A decent 1080p picture can be done with half that, call it 25Mbps, and if you compress it to awfulness like the cable companies are so fond of doing, you can probably get away with 10Mbps before people drop your service for quality reasons.

For the sake of argument, I will be using 10Mbps as the floor for HD digital video in the future. See the problem with usage quotas now? If you have a piss-poor HD video playing, you will eat up your bandwidth cap in about 2.5 hours of TV watching a day. According to the latest numbers I can find, Nielsen says that Americans watch on average about 142.5 hours a month with teens shifting a lot of that online.

If you watched all of this online, at crappy quality, that would be about 5x the 300GB/month cap. Let me say that again, average TV watching at a quality so low it is noticable will consume 5x more than a usage cap more generous than any proposed. If you have a second TV in your house, it just gets worse, and add normal net usage on top of that......

Basically, the cable internet usage quotas have nothing to do with the internet, they are all about protecting the cable companies TV business. With any quotas in place, it is basically impossible to watch TV in an 'average' way over the internet. You can't even get half of average at barely acceptable quality.

It totally locks content providers out of selling to the consumers. Most people only watch 2-3 cable channels regularly, wouldn't you rather pay $5 per channel/month than $59+++ for digital cable stocked full of 731 channels that you really don't care about? Ultimate Fighting fans probably will never watch Oprah, and Fox News aficionados will be unlikely to watch CNN, but if you want one, you have to get that and pay for 72 others too.

Cable companies price things so 'must have' channels are in different packages forcing you to buy more crap than you want, with emphasis on crap. With the coming of the internet, consumers can go directly to the content providers they actually care about directly. This cuts cable out of the loop totally.

Obviously that won't be allowed to happen as long as cable has a monopoly over the pipes as they do in most areas. If they outright ban the consumer to content route, government will do unpalatable things to them, like making them compete or treat consumers fairly. So what do you do if you are a greedy uncaring monopoly that abuses consumers for fun, I mean profit?

Well, you put quotas in place with credible sounding but totally disingenuous reasons for doing so. It helps if you pick a few fight over things you know won't fly first to set the stage. DPI and packet classification were distractions, kind of like Burger King putting a triple Whopper on the menu simple so people think the double is less objectionable. People pick the middle, which is what Burger King really wanted, they don't expect any sane person to buy a triple.

Cable set things up perfectly. They tried techniques so foul that people would loudly object, and then a settlement would be reached on the Double Whopper, aka usage caps. The myopic masses and clueless regulators would eventually 'settle' on a cap that is so far above what any normal human could want that it is almost unreachable through internet use.

In the mean time, the cable monopolies are laughing all the way to the bank. They just insured their monopoly in the face of a new medium, and did so in plain sight with the blessing of their enemies and their regulators.

The content providers are once again enslaved to the cable monopoly, and they lose as well. Consumers are denied choice, and they lose too. Meanwhile, cable execs fret over the color choices for their new Mercedes S-Class, bonus season is coming up.

That is why bandwidth caps are the hot topic, it has nothing to do with the net at all. It is also why you don't see phone companies, wireless companies, or any other bandwidth provider trying to impose them, they have no TV monopoly to protect. They might occasionally chime in just for negotiating leverage later, but it is not a real concern.

Meanwhile, consumers lose, content providers lose, the net loses, emerging technologies are stifled, and regulators pat themselves on the back for a job well done. If you are a cable exec, you can find the S-Class colour choices here. µ



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