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Paid Prioritization Threat Reinforces Value of Community Networks

Recent reports out of the FCC say that it will allow ISPs to create and sell "fast lanes" of Internet access to the companies with sufficiently deep pockets to afford them. While some people argue over whether this violates network neutrality principles or not, the more important point is that most communities have no control over how the networks on which they depend are operated.

The big ISPs, like Comcast and AT&T, are focused on maximizing revenue for their shareholders. It is why they exist. So they will want to make the fast lanes as appealing as possible, which in turn means making providers like Netflix unable to deliver a high quality product without paying special tolls to Comcast.

What does that mean for you? It means you should expect to see the big providers slow their already anemic pace of investing in higher capacity connections in favor of pushing content providers into the paid prioritization schemes. It also means that you may have to start paying more for Netflix or Hulu, where the additional money goes to the ISP you already overpay for comparatively lousy service.

A range of ISPs, from privately owned Sonic.Net in California to Chattanooga's Electric Power Board right up to Google have demonstrated that they can deliver a "fast lane" to everyone. This fight over paid prioritization is nothing more than the big cable and telephone companies trying to increase their profits while minimizing needed investments in higher quality service to everyone.

Unless you live in an area with a community-owned network. Unlike the big providers with a fidiciary responsibility to distant shareholders, community owned networks are directly accountable to the community. Their mission is to maximize local benefits, not extracting as much wealth from households as possible. ISPs like Sonic also have much more reasonable policies but over time these privately owned ISPs are vulnerable to being bought by the big national providers.

Community owned networks are far less likely to engage in paid prioritization because it adds no value for subscribers in the community. In fact, the worse the big cable companies act in terms of ripping off subscribers, the more valuable community owned networks become by providing a better level of service.

Another example of this is monthly data caps - the big cable companies have been "experimenting" with them in several markets in the south but always in areas where the community has not built an alternative option. Community networks not only offer a much better option to the community, they change the behavior of incumbents who are accustomed to operated in non-competitive environments.

The final benefit of community owned networks is that if the federal regulators fall down on the job AND your community-owned networks engages in behavior that hurts subscribers, there is a democratic process for rectifying that, whether in elections for the city council or coop board.

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

For the second time this year, one of the major defenders of the cable and telephone companies has admitted that DSL cannot provide the Internet access we need as a nation. This admission validates our research as well as that of Susan Crawford and others that show most Americans are effectively stuck with a cable monopoly.

On April 7, 2014, the Diane Rehm show hosted another discussion on telecommunications policy with guests that included Jeffrey Eisenach, the Director of the Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

During that show, Eisenach stated, "The vast majority of Europeans still only have DSL service available, which we in the United States consider really almost an obsolete technology now."

Interestingly, Eisenach and others have repeatedly claimed that there is no market failure in the US - that we have plenty of choices. But most Americans have to choose between what most now admit is an obsolete DSL product and cable. Eisenach would add 4G LTE as another competitor, but as we have noted many times, the average household would have to pay hundreds of dollars per month to use their LTE connection as a replacement for DSL or cable.

The average household uses something like 40-55 GB of data per month. Given the bandwidth caps from LTE providers, the overage charges quickly result in a bill of approximately $500 or more depending on the plan. This is why the overwhelming majority of the market uses mobile wireless as a complement, not substitute to wired networks.

We are left with one conclusion: there is no meaningful competition or choice for most of us in the residential telecommunications market. And no real prospect of a choice either as the cable companies only grow stronger.

This is not the first time Eisenach admitted that DSL is insufficient for our needs. Back in January, on Diane's show, he again used Europe's dependence on DSL as evidence that it was falling behind: "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Even those who only want the private sector to deliver services are starting to admit that the existing providers are failing us. What more do communities need to take an active role in ensuring their needs are met?

Danger of "Sponsored Data" via AT&T, Others

AT&T has announced a program that has put many of us on edge - "Sponsored Data." As an example, I may have a 500 MB cap on my monthly AT&T plan, but Facebook could pay AT&T so that its content does not count against my cap. Both Free Press and Public Knowledge have taken strong stands against the program, arguing that the FCC should not allow it. And the L.A. Times explains that it won't save consumers any money.

But those who defend the program argue that it is nothing more than a modern day 1-800 number, where the other party pays for the call. I find the argument unpersuasive.

For decades, 800 numbers were a fraction of calls made. Most phone calls have been local in nature, so even if 800 numbers were a substantial amount of long distance calls, it didn't really impact how we used our phones. By contrast, here AT&T will be targeting the most common applications on the Internet, further centralizing power among those with deep pockets to build a moat around their services and hamper innovation.

Additionally, we had unlimited local calling in combination with tolled long distance. If all calls were tolled individually, the 800 number would be a more appropriate comparison. All data counts against the monthly cap except for companies that pay to exempt their data. So if you have a choice between two video streaming services, which would you pick? The one that runs up your AT&T bill more or the one that doesn't?

Finally, with this "pay to play" program, the big wireless carriers have a strong incentive to keep data caps low because if companies like Facebook, Google, and others are willing to pick up the tab.

The whole approach may harm innovation in ways that were spelled out quite well on AVC:

Entrepreneur: I plan to launch a better streaming music service. It leverages the data on what you and your friends currently listen to, combines that with the schedule of new music launches and acts that are touring in your city in the coming months and creates playlists of music that you should be listening to in order to find new acts to listen to and go see live.

VC: Well since Spotify, Beats, and Apple have paid all the telcos so that their services are free on the mobile networks, we are concerned that new music services like yours will have a hard time getting new users to use them because the data plan is so expensive. We like you and the idea very much, but we are going to have to pass.

This isn't the make-believe world of Chicago economists. It is a world where making it big means finding investors - and investors rarely want to go after massive corporations with moats around their products. This is the same reason investors rarely see any prospect of making a quick buck by competing against Comcast.

Wireless Internet Access Fact Sheet

Wireless networks have been incredibly successful, from home Wi-Fi networks to the billions of mobile devices in use across the planet. So successful, in fact, that some have come to believe we no longer need wires.

We developed this fact sheet to clarify some misconceptions about what wireless Internet networks are capable of and the importance of fiber optic cables in building better wireless networks as our bandwidth needs continue to increase.

This fact sheet defines important terms, offers some key points clarifying common misconceptions, compares 4G and 3G wireless to wired cable, and more. We also include references to additional resources for those who want to dig deeper.

Download our Wireless Internet 101 Fact Sheet Here [pdf].

If you want updates about stories relating to community Internet networks, we send out one email each week with recent stories we covered here at MuniNetworks.org. Sign up here.

Cox Discourages Internet Use That Competes with Core Cable Product

Another story of frustration as cable companies try to discourage Internet use on their last generation networks.

An article earlier this month in StopTheCap! tells the story of the John Heeley family, long time Cox customers and avid Netflix fans. The Heeley's received a letter from Cox warning them about their "excessive Internet usage." They were more than a little annoyed, considering they fork over $2,400 a year to the cable giant provider so called to express their displeasure:

Heeley’s fiancé Shelley was angry after realizing just how much the couple already spends with Cox.

“I called them on the phone and the first thing they want to do is get you to upgrade and spend even more money with them,” she tells Stop the Cap! “They tried to vaguely threaten our service if we continued to ‘overuse the Internet’ and suggested we cut back or cancel Netflix which they think is the reason we went over the limit.”

Shelley says she was born at night, but not last night.

“How convenient they want you to stop using Netflix, Amazon, or other online video services that their cable TV competes with,” Shelley says. “It is unfair competition.”

Shelley requested a Cox supervisor and threatened the company right back, telling Cox if they sent one more letter like that, the Heeley family would take their business elsewhere.

“He told us quietly we could ignore the letter and any future letters and they will add a note on our account,” Shelley tells us. “He confided they have customers going over the limit all the time and the letter is really about educating customers about usage.”

Lack of Competition Creates Capped Connections

This post comes to us from Patrick Lucey of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. The post was originally published there, but we are excited to feature it here as well.

Last month my colleagues and I at the the Open Technology Institute released a paper titled “Capping the Nation’s Broadband Future?” The paper examines data caps, an increasingly common practice where internet service providers charge individuals a fee if they exceed a monthly threshold on the data they use. The paper discusses how data caps are not a solution to network congestion concerns, nor a reflection of increased costs due to more people being online. A review of public financial documents for Comcast shows their broadband network operating are decreasing. Other costs, like bandwidth transit, are decreasing as well. Instead, data caps are a reflection of a lack of competition in both the home and wireless broadband market. 

As if to hammer home the larger point about a lack of competition, a few days after releasing the paper I received the following flyer in my mailbox. It is a promo piece from a joint marketing agreement between Comcast and Verizon Wireless where they promote each others’ services. Signing up for Verizon Wireless service will give me a discount on my home Comcast subscription. 

Although this agreement was approved by the FCC and Department of Justice, this kind of chummy behavior between supposedly rival companies is hardly a sign of aggressive competition. Verizon FiOS is often cited as the main competitor to incumbent cable companies, even though Verizon officials have stated the company is not expanding FiOS to new markets.  

At a recent public event, Vint Cerf, recognized as one of the creators of the internet, stated that since the days of dial-up service competition among broadband providers has “evaporated.”  Perhaps most telling for the American broadband market are recent developments in China, where new buildings are required to be wired with fiber optics if there is a larger fiber network in the area. The article touts how individuals will have their choice of internet providers. By adopting open access policies such as these on a large scale, customers in China -- a country that has embraced capitalism but is still nominally communist -- could end up enjoying greater free market competition than customers in the U.S. 

The lack of broadband competition in the U.S. has led more and more telecom policy leaders to worry that instead of competing and building state-of-the-art networks, internet service providers are increasingly focused on “harvesting” higher revenues from their customer base. Indeed, recent trends seem to confirm these fears, as providers have begun implementing data cap overage charges, introducing new modem rental fees, and entering into joint marketing agreements. 

It is important to have a discussion around data caps and what they mean for online innovation, commerce and consumer behavior. However, data caps are merely the manifestation of a larger problem: the lack of robust competition among U.S. internet providers. New entrants like Google Fiber in Kansas City or municipally-owned networks in other cities are offering faster broadband speeds and typically without data caps. Policymakers in Washington must focus on ways to encourage these local examples of innovation on a larger national basis in the broadband market.

Bandwidth Caps are Unnecessary and Counterproductive

The Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation has released a report on data caps in the U.S. The report, Capping the Nation's Broadband Future, was authored by Hibah Hussain, Danielle Kehl, Benjamin Lennett, and Patrick Lucey.

The paper looks at the growing prevalence of monthly data caps by massive ISPs like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and others. Authors conclude that data caps are effectively discouraging Internet usage with restrictions and limits that can be expensive. From the summary:

As this paper documents, data caps, especially on wireline networks, are hardly a necessity. Rather, they are motivated by a desire to further increase revenues from existing subscribers and protect legacy services such as cable television from competing Internet services. Although traffic on U.S. broadband networks is increasing at a steady rate, the costs to provide broadband service are also declining, including the cost of Internet connectivity or IP transit as well as equipment and other operational costs. The result is that broadband is an incredibly profitable business, particularly for cable ISPs. Tiered pricing and data caps have also become a cash cow for the two largest mobile providers, Verizon and AT&T, who already were making impressive margins on their mobile data service before abandoning unlimited plans.

The increasing prevalence of data caps both on the nation’s wireline and mobile networks underscore a critical need for policymakers to implement reforms to promote competition in the broadband marketplace.  Data caps may offer an effective means for incumbents to generate more revenue from subscribers and satisfy investors, but making bandwidth an unnecessarily scarce commodity is bad for consumers and innovation.  The future is not just about streaming movies or TV shows but also access to online education or telehealth services that are just starting to take off. Capping their future may mean capping the nation’s future as well.

The paper also looks at the technical challenges of capping data usage. Additionally, the authors delve into the many ways data caps are turned into profit for a few big providers while harming users. This resource brings relevent data into focus along side long term policy implications and offers some advice:

Data Cap Myth

For the Internet to continue to serve as a catalyst for economic growth it is imperative that consumers and entrepreneurs not feel constrained online. In a recent speech, former FCC Executive Director and Chief of Staff Blair Levin highlighted the links between broadband abundance, innovation, and economic growth.

"When it comes to the wireline access network, instead of talking about upgrades, we are talking about caps and tiers. Instead of talking about investment for growth, we are talking about harvesting for dividends,” …  “[policymakers] should recognize that our progress demands an investment environment that creates the conditions that allows us to invent the future, not just harvest from the past."

An uncapped Internet environment gave rise to a host of innovative and popular applications. Broadband and bandwidth must continue to be thought of as an abundant resource, not a rationed commodity, to ensure the vibrant online ecosystem can continue to flourish.

Shortly after this report was published, the lead lobbyists for cable interests in Washington, DC, admitted that the bandwidth caps are not designed to solve any congestion problems, which Karl Bode covered with his usual smart analysis.

Except the argument that usaged pricing is about fairness has been just as repeatedly debunked. If usage caps were about "fairness," carriers would offer the nation's grandmothers a $5-$15 a month tier that accurately reflected her twice weekly, several megabyte browsing of the Weather Channel website. Instead, what we most often see are low caps and high overages layered on top of already high existing flat rate pricing, raising rates for all users.

Any argument that caps for wireline service are necessary is refuted by the fact that the fastest networks in the US, whether publicly owned, Google, or even Verizon's FiOS, see no need to cap monthly transfer amounts.

The big cable monopolists don't care about fairness, they care about boosting profits while investing as little as possible. Unfortunately, their overcharging lack of investment is harming every other industry in our country.

AT&T, Others Overcharge Subscribers Based on Secret Bandwidth Meters

Imagine going to a gas station, putting 10 gallons into your car's 12 gallon tank, and driving off only to find your needle only approaches half a tank? This scenario is quite rare because government inspects gas stations to ensure they are not lying about how much gasoline they dispense.

But when it comes to the Internet, we have found measurements of how much data one uses is unregulated, providing no check on massive companies like AT&T and Time Warner Cable. And we are seeing the results -- AT&T is not open about what its limits are or how to tell when one has exceeded them.

Stop The Cap has noted that AT&T has advertised unlimited bandwidth for its DSL/ U-verse product while chiding and charging customers who exceeded certain amounts of monthly usage. Customers were quietly warned and charged $10 for each additional 50 GB over 150 GB for DSL subscribers or 250 GB for U-verse customers.  Clearly, "unlimited" has several definitions, depending on whether one is a customer or an ISP.

Complaints have also come in from SuddenLink customers and others. The ISP charged usage based customers for bandwidth usage when they didn't even have power. Simlarly, AT&T customers began to complain about inaccurate meters from the beginning of the program. This from a 2011 DSL Reports story - one of many comments from AT&T customers:

AT&T's data appears to be wholely corrupted. Some days, AT&T will under-report my data usage by as much as 91%. (They said I used 92 meg, my firewall says I used 1.1 Gigs.) Some days, AT&T will over-report my data usage by as much as 4700%. (They said I used 3.8 Gig, dd-wrt says I used 80 meg. And no, this day wasn't anywhere near the day they under-reported.)

Most of us don't keep track of our bandwidth usage, because there is no easy way to do it. For the most part, we have to take the word of our Internet service providers, but who is ensuring that they are accurate? Mismeasuring could be the result of incompetence or fraud, but the FCC has not stepped up to ensure consumers get what they are promised.

DSL Reports has extensively covered this AT&T bandwidth cap story and its refusal to open its meters to verification. One customer recorded a persistent pattern of inaccuracuracies, finding that AT&T was over recording the households daily usage by about 20-30%. The user contacted AT&T support to get a definition of "metered usage" because there was no definition on its website. From the article (and reposted from Slashdot):

Boy, did I get a surprise. After several calls, they finally told me they consider the methodology by which they calculate bandwidth usage to be proprietary. Yes, you read that right; it's a secret. They left me with the option to contact their executive offices via snail mail.

As long as there is no meaningful competition for broadband customers, AT&T will face no market penalty for abusing its customers. And unfortunately, the FCC has been asleep at this wheel as well. Also from Karl at DSLReports:

Worse perhaps, is that regulators in both the United States and Canada haven't shown the slightest interest in the problem despite the fact that ISPs are billing like utilities, with nobody but the consumer confirming whether their meters are accurate.

We have yet to hear of a credible reason to need bandwidth meters on wired networks. The companies that have invested in modern networks -- from community fiber to Verizon's FiOS -- see no need to count bits. It only seems to be those who don't want to invest and cable companies that want to slow the growth of over-the-top video pushing these limits.

Usage Based Billing - Time Warner Cable Latest Attempt to Increase Prices

Time Warner Cable's announced intention to expand its usage based billing for broadband has recently received a little media attention. The company currently uses tiers for customers in parts of Texas, allowing customers to sign on to a plan which limits the amount of usage per month. If they come in under the plan amount (currently 5 gigabytes), they get a $5 dscount. If they go over, they are charged $1 per gigabyte over the tier limit.

One commentary we find particularly insightful is from Susan Crawford, "The Sledgehammer of usage-based billing." Crawford not only addresses TWC's billing change, but critiques New York Times' "Sweeping Effects as Bradband Moves To Meters" by Brian Stelter.

Crawford points out several statements in Stelter's article that sound rational on paper, but are actually "holes" in the fabric of reality. Based on what we have seen from companies like Time Warner Cable, we concur.

Stelter justifies Time Warner's decision to shift to usage-based billing based on the fact that its competitors are doing it. Crawford points out that:

Time Warner does not have competitors among cable companies – if by competition you mean a cable distributor that could constrain Time Warner’s pricing or ability to manage its pipe for its own purposes. Time Warner’s DOCSIS 3.0 services do compete with Verizon’s FiOS, but FiOS is available in just a tiny part of Time Warner’s footprint. The major cable distributors long ago divided up the country among themselves.

The Stelter article raises the issue of high usage and congestion, their connections to the usage tier billing model, and claims that there is no other way to handle high usage. Crawford calls out this error as it relates to the new billing plan:

Cable distributors have a choice: They could maintain the 90+ % margins they enjoy for data services and the astonishing levels of dividends and buybacks their stock produces, or they could rearchitect their networks to serve obvious consumer demand. But they are in harvesting mode, not expansion mode. And no competitor is pressuring them to expand.

Stelter quotes Comcast when it tried to defend the new billing program:

Last spring, David L. Cohen, Comcast executive stated “Our network is not an infinite resource, and it is expensive to expand it,”

To which Crawford replies:

There is no empirical connection between any of the pricing involved in this story – the monthly prices, the overage prices, any of it – and the cost of actually providing data service and responding to consumer demand. The major cable distributors can charge whatever they want, however they want, for whatever services they define. There is no oversight of any of this and no visibility into what is actually going on.

Christopher Mitchell discussed this very subject last week on an impressive panel of Internet experts that discussed this issue for an hour:

Will charging extra for downloading an extra movie solve the problem of congestion? No, it will just let TWC profit from a hot consumer trend - viewing content online. Will TWC and Comcast use that profit to expand? Maybe, but history shows that those 90+% margins are not typically directed toward for expansion of any kind.

A significant chunk of that money, however, is dedicated to lobbyists and legislators who help TWC and Comcast maintain their de facto monopolies and escape regulation. These companies have already spent at least $9 million in DC to ensure policymakers are paying more attention to their desires and our needs. Crawford points to the North Carolina Law revoking local authority to build a network and we add South Carolina to that ever expanding list. The list of state legislators who bend to giant cable company whims continues to grow.

When considering the environment, Crawford reminds us to look at the forest, not only the trees:

The cable operators have a built in, giant conflict of interest. They want to make sure that only their own premium video products are successful, and they can twist all the dials to make sure that happens. They can re-define services (calling their own content “specialized” and exempting it from caps or usage-based billing), they can withhold programming (particularly sports and live specials and first-run premium content) in concert with their colleagues, or charge so much for it that it won’t make sense to compete with them online, they can treat the bits coming from non-partners badly through their control over in-home devices as well as the pipe itself…endless endless ways to control.

Some commentary has been favorable of the new pricing, arguing that people should not have to pay for unlimited usage if they don't need or want it. Yet, if people were actually able to pay something that actually corresponded to the cost of their usage, their bills would drop dramatically. Time Warner Cable is trying to increase the amount many pay, far above the cost of their usage.

Stacey Higgenbotham pointed out another problem. Tiered usage based billing reinforces the concept that efficient, unlimited online access is a luxury. Such an approach is contrary to what the internet is becoming all around the world (a human right) except in the U.S. Continuing this attitude will continue to drag us down as the rest of the world advances.

One piece of wisdom from the Stelter article came from Nicholas Longo, the director of Geekdom, a new collaborative work space for small companies in San Antonio:

“It’s like locking the doors to the library.”

Or, like letting you stay in the library for a long time, if you pay extra,and making you leave if you don't have sufficiently deep pockets.

If this is an issue you want to learn more about, we strongly recommend checking in on Stop the Cap!.

Roundtable Discussion on Bandwidth Caps and Broadband Networks

On Friday, July 13, I was a guest on TWiT Specials on the This Week in Tech Network, discussing bandwidth caps with Dane Jasper, Reid Fishler, and Benoit Felten. Hosted by Tom Merritt.

It was a very good discussion over the course of one hour.