GigaBandits: ISPs to Cap Internet Use

22 Oct

It’s a time-honoured tradition in capitalist societies: as soon as the big companies catch on to what’s popular (which sometimes takes a few days, as in the case of yearly toy fads, or a few years, as is the case with social media), they up the prices. Cause and effect, I suppose, but also supply and demand.  If there’s a demand, they can put a cap on the supply – which is exactly what price markups equate to.

(Yeah, not really)

(Yeah, not really)

But where does that stop, precisely?  Obviously price sharking living necessities like food or (dare I say) oil is supposed to be illegal, but how do you determine what’s a “life necessity”?

As of this writing I’m 25 years of age: I’m a member of possibly the last generation who still remember what life was like before Google gave us the answers to all of life’s questions.  I grew up in a world that went from boom boxes and Walkmans to iPods and MP3s in the span of a short fifteen or so years.  As a child I dreamed of the day when I could pass the boredom of long family car trips with my own personal TV; I longed for the privilege of a first-generation Game Boy that would have been a close second.  Now, if I so desired, I could go pick up a Play Station Portable that basically functions as both.  Or, contrarily, I could pull out an iPhone and surf the internet anywhere that wireless access is available.  And yet, somehow, I only bought my first cell phone (ever) around this time last year.

(Pretty much just like this)

(Pretty much just like this)

The reason I bring this up is because, prior to owning a cell, I considered such devices frivolous toys – luxuries only required by high-powered business types or as emergency communication devices in vehicles. Now, barely a year since my fateful purchase, I’m connected to the damn thing at the hip.  I can’t imagine being without it.  The nature of the work I do requires that I be constantly available for contact, or I risk missing out on jobs, so I carry my cell phone around with me everywhere.  And yes, I have passed the time on transit playing the little billiards game that comes installed.

(On my cell phone, it doesn't even look this good)

(On my cell phone, it doesn't even look this good)

My point is, for better or worse, in a lot of ways my phone has become a “life necessity”.  But the price I pay for access to a communication network is reasonable, and the phone itself was dirt cheap (yes, compared to new-generation Blackberries or iPhones, it’s a piece of shit, but who cares?  It’s a phone.)  It’s an accepted fact that I only have a certain number of minutes I can use based on what I pay, and that’s fine.

The internet is a somewhat different animal.

(Hooray for wasting time!)

(Hooray for wasting time!)

It’s one thing to limit the number of outgoing minutes you can use on a cell phone – you can get around that through unlimited texting packages or even by keeping your phone calls brief (my preferred method since I hate talking on the phone).  But telephone calls and texts are static data totals.  I seriously doubt a text could get much bigger than a few hundred kilobytes, even if you were texting “War and Peace”.

(Blah, blah, blah.  Is this really important?)

(Blah, blah, blah. Is this really important?)

With the internet it’s much different.

Think about it for a second: when I first got the internet back in 2002 (when I moved out of my parents’ place and went to school) I was on a dial-up connection running a first-generation Pentium.  It was an exercise in futility trying to download anything, but at least I could load web pages.  These days you can’t even load a simple news page without having your system bogged down by flash and HTML all over the place.  A dial-up connection would take the rest of my natural life trying to load CNN, let alone (God forbid) somebody’s tricked-out Myspace page.

Now consider the amount of media available online these days.  A typical audio file (and this is a completed song, never mind a WAV file you require to do any kind of audio mixing) runs about 10kb, and the average movie is well over a gigabyte.  Leaving aside the legality of downloading this material, that’s a massive amount of information passing through your system.  Even if you’re paying for that material, it’s not as though your credit card turns that data into something smaller than it is.  And how many people do you know (legally or illegally) download music and movies like they’re going out of style?

(To pay, or not to pay.  Is it a question?)

(To pay, or not to pay. Is it a question?)

Take me for example.  As a musician, in addition to my original work I regularly play cover-based shows for an additional paycheque (because drunks will pay a lot of money to hear somebody play “Sweet Home Alabama” right in front of them so they can sing along poorly and repeatedly smash their hands on the table, albeit out-of-rhythm).  In order to keep my set fresh I have to routinely learn new songs, because God forbid I play a country bar and not know how to play the latest Kenny Chesney single.  As a result, downloading music is, in a way, part of my job.  It’s research.

(Jesus fuckin' Christ.  The things I do for audiences.)

(Jesus fuckin' Christ. The things I do for audiences.)

Same thing with the blog, believe it or not.  Regular readers of this blog will note that I cover a great deal of different material – everything from music, to movies and television shows, to websites – basically everything you could imagine under the name “pop culture”.  In order to stay on top of current events and continue to provide you, my valued reader, with top-notch entertainment, I have to immerse myself in culture – and there’s no faster, more efficient way to do that than by making use of the internet.

And I’m far from alone in this, my friends.  I’m sure you’re all in similar boats.  So what, then, do you have to say about this?

(Well, that's why you're here, isn't it?)

(Well, that's why you're here, isn't it?)

Here’s the Coles notes.  Anybody remember last year when Time/Warner decided to put a cap on broadband usage?  Well, they got overruled, but apparently it didn’t stick.  Major service providers including TW and AT&T are taking another crack at “usage-based” or “metered” payment plans.  To the layman, this means that if you download, say, 150 gigabytes a month, it’s going to cost you a certain amount, after which point you’re cut off.  A company in Texas has been doing this for a year already, except they only levy a surcharge for every gigabyte you go over your maximum.  But if the major providers get their way, your internet use will be limited to whatever they deem acceptable.

(NO BROADBAND FOR YOU!)

(NO BROADBAND FOR YOU!)

Here’s my take: the internet is the single most democratic invention in human history.  It affords us limitless knowledge (if you know how to sort through the bullshit) and connects us in ways our parents could only imagine.  It gives everyone a voice (Youtube and blogging are the most obvious outlets) and allows us to access just about any media created anywhere on the planet, ostensibly for a nominal fee (depending on your personal morality).  Most importantly, it’s a technology that’s been consistently developed, nurtured and supported by the companies that own the provider networks.  So what gives?

I know it’s a bit of a slippery slope, but how far does this go?  How long between “you’re only allowed X amount of internet time” and base censorship of the internet in general?  Who has the right to tell us what we can and cannot access?

(If this is where we're headed, these folks are ahead of the wave.  SoA is banned in China.)

(If this is where we're headed, these folks are ahead of the wave. SoA is banned in China.)

I for one stand wholly in opposition to this move.  Blogging does not pay nearly as well as you might think, and since I’m already paying for a service that allows me to do my job to the best of my ability, I’ll be damned if somebody is going to tell me exactly how many times I can go back to that well.   Isn’t it enough that we already have to work and pay through the nose just to be fed and sheltered?  Now they’re going to take away my porn?

I mean, my research materials.  Yes.  That’s precisely what I meant.

Give me your feedback, folks.  I know a lot of you know way more about the intricacies of the internet than I do.  Tell me if I’m wrong – but more important, tell me if I’m right.

4 Responses to “GigaBandits: ISPs to Cap Internet Use”

  1. Sean October 23, 2009 at 3:41 PM #

    Actually, a couple of quick things to change, before I add my own cents:

    First, I believe that you were looking for 10MB, when you were talking about the file size of MP3s, rather than “kB”.
    Also, there’s an important distinction between uppercase and lowercase ‘b’. The larger is “Bytes”, whilst the smaller is “bits” (or “baud”, in the case of internet transfer speed, which for all intents and purposes, you can basically read as “bits”, regardless).
    A “bit” happens to be 1/8th of a “Byte”. Also, there happen to be 1024 bits in a Byte.
    These are common errors – especially mistaking one “b” for the other “B” – one that I occasionally have to catch myself making – however, it speaks exactly to your point:

    Compared to your given number of 10 kilobits, a song which is 10 MegaBytes is 8192 times larger.
    That’s the difference between downloading a MIDI ringtone, and a 5-minute .MP3 at 320kb/second – 8192x more required data transferred, and storage space.

    Also, just for comparison – while a 128kbps .MP3 is roughly 0.9MB/minute, and a 320kbps .MP3 is roughly 2MB/minute, a CD quality WAV file (either a direct CD rip, or a sound track for mixing) is roughly 11MB/minute. And that’s just stereo channels.
    That’s saying nothing of BluRay quality (or studio recording quality) audio, with 8 channels of audio, with each of the 8 channels taking up almost as much space as both CD channels combined.

    The second point to make is that believe it or not, almost all broadband companies have overage clauses in their terms of service, for practically all plans.

    Case in point: you subscribe to a Roger’s broadband service – regardless of what your price point is, basically, Rogers is selling you a certain maximum speed (typically between 512kb/s up to 10Mbps), but not only are they selling you the speed, they’re also telling you how many GigaBytes you are entitled to download in a month.

    Personally, I am on a plan which offers a maximum throughput of 10Mbps, which is basically 1.25MB/s (10Mbits x 1024(kilos per meg), /8 (bits per byte) /1024 (kilos in meg) = 1.25MegaBytes. Yes, you can do this easier, just dividing 10Mbits by 8 (bits into bytes) to arrive at 1.25MBytes instead of 10Mbits, but showing the work makes it easier to follow).
    This plan of mine offers this 1.25MB download speed, but limits me to downloading 90GB/month.
    If I go over that 90GB cap, I pay overage fees – likely $1 per gig, up to a maximum which is likely somewhere in the park of $30 more than my monthly bill.

    All right – my two cents regarding the article:

    Personally, I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to pay per use internet.
    As you can see, I am already paying more money than I should, for the services which I am getting (Canada is one of the lowest-rated countries in the developed world when it comes to speed/bandwidth per dollar), and I’ve also purchased a package which makes sure that while I am purchasing and downloading games and media online, as well as doing my work online, and collaborating online, writing and recording music, I am unlikely to excede my bandwidth allotment, or in the case of emergencies, unlikely to do so frequently.

    This, however comes at a premium cost (if I hadn’t purchased the modem outright, I may be looking at an internet bill of almost $100/month, after taxes and service fees).
    Signing up for a service where I pay only for the bandwidth I use in a given month, so long as the price points stay equivalent, would mean that I end up saving money, or breaking even, compared to my current internet setup.
    I would be more than willing to do this, [b]IF[/b] my ISP would guarantee that every time I needed it, I would have practically full throughput (in my case, 1.25MegaBytes per second), at any time of day, regardless of what it is I’m downloading.

    See, the larger problem right at this second is that ISPs do what is called “throttling”.
    This applies to all of the major ISPs in North America.
    The idea is that BitTorrent and P2P programs make up a large majority of the bandwidth being taken up (again, think of the size difference between a 2kB e-mail, and a 10MB .MP3). So ISPs basically control how fast you can download each one.

    You can download your e-mail at a full 1.25MB/s. That’s great, but then I can only get the .MP3 at 20kB/s…
    Well, really, why is it they think that I’m paying for the faster internet? Because the fraction of a second it takes to get my e-mail isn’t fast enough?
    No, because I want access to media.

    The solution, of course, has been for programmers to encrypt the data which they’re sending back and forth, on the internet, so that the ISP can’t see what the data is and say “This is a BitTorrent file – we’re going to throttle the speed right down.”
    It worked for a while.

    What are they doing about it now? ISPs are throttling [b]ALL[/b] encrypted data.
    That’s wonderful. But you see, that means that I’m not getting the speed that I paid for on any website or program which is sending or receiving encrypted data.
    None.

    MSN webcam? Skype business conference? VoIP call back home?
    They’re all throttled.
    None of these things require 1.25MB/s – in fact, nowhere even remotely close.
    So why are they shaky and stuttering and have degrading quality? Because the ISPs are throttling it automatically, because they’re encrypted for the sake of privacy.

    I work from home, and in my work, I am required, almost daily, to download multiple sets of financial information from very, very big corporations.
    Guess what? That’s encrypted information, too.
    Downloading each of those sets takes me nearly an hour.

    Nearly an hour for a [b]text file[/b].

    There is a currently ongoing court case, involving both Rogers and Bell, in Toronto, regarding this practice of throttling bandwidth for encrypted downloads. Basically, the legal battle is over false advertising – selling 1.25MB transfer speed, offering a 90GB/month cap, and then not only not being able to provide what they’re selling (which is included in the fine-print of the contract), but intentionally preventing customers from using what they paid for.

    This would be akin to having the water company give you full water pressure when you’re washing your hands, or getting a glass of water to drink, but then cutting your water pressure down to a trickle, every time you intend to have a shower or do laundry, or flush the toilet.
    And then, the water company would still charge you full price for that shower/load of laundry/washroom break, because their contract stipulates that they’re offering “up to full pressure, during non-peak hours, so long as it’s for purposes which they deem worthy for full pressure, up to XXX Litres per month.”, and then charging a premium price for that service, plus service fees and water pipe rental fees.

    To this I reply:
    Guh?

  2. Adam October 26, 2009 at 6:26 PM #

    There is an inherent problem with the “The internet is the ultimate expression of democracy, and it therefore should not be limited to people in any way” argument is that the internet is the way it is due to considerable heaps of infrastructure which a number of telecommunications companies have paid dearly to put into place.

    Accordingly, they deserve to be paid for not only the use of their infrastructure, but also for the constant research that they are required to do to keep the technology and the infrastructure constantly developing. R&D isn’t cheap, and just because you rely on the technology as much as you do doesn’t mean that the companies who provide you with the service shouldn’t be compensated.

    Look at the case of the telephone 50 years ago or so. This was the singular device which had revolutionized communications. Just about everyone in the developed world, and a substantial portion of those outside the developed world, could now suddenly communicate with anyone else in real time. However, this real time communication relied on a worldwide infrastructure of cables, switches, and relays, which had been put in place by telecommunications companies. Accordingly, they were the ones that you had to pay to tap into this network, and reap the benefits thereof.

    It could be argued that the situation is the same as it is now with the internet. The telecommunications companies of the day (especially AT&T) made heaps of money on the popularity of the telephone, and no one ever suggested that they should not have made such money.

    To argue that the social value afforded by the global interconnectedness that was spawned by any technology is so substantial that discrimination of access to this value should not be based upon economic standing completely ignores the fact that the social value itself was created by the substantial monetary investment made by a number of telecommunications companies. It would be like suggesting that gasoline is so crucial to our society (Once again, a commodity that promotes an interconnected culture by facilitating universal access to transportation) that oil companies ought not to be able to charge for it. In short, it’s patently ludicrous.

    ISPs charge individuals money to access their own network infrastructure for a fee. Other telecommunications companies allow subscribers of other ISPs access to their infrastructure on a quid pro quo basis (ie. I’ll let your customers access my infrastructure if you let my customers do the same with yours). ISPs base this fee on the complexity and speed of the infrastructure that needs to be maintained, as well as the amount of strain which your presence will place on the infrastructure. Hence, the individual who will only be using a maximum of 5Mbps and up to 65GB of traffic in a month are placing less strain on the network than someone using a maximum of 8Mbps, and up to 95GB of traffic in a month. Accordingly, they are charged less.

    In short, you pay for what you are intending to use. That strikes me as fair. The fact that any individual is dependent upon the internet for their livelihood, or otherwise, doesn’t mean that they should be remotely exempt from the rules. You either pay more because you place more strain on the infrastructure, or you put up with what you have.

    Would a stock broker in the 1960s be entitled to be exempted from limitations on his use of the telephone (eg. long distance fees, etc.) based simply on the fact that his livelihood depended on his use of the telephone, and consequently, his access to the underlying infrastructure? Short answer: No. He would have to pay for what he uses, just like everyone else.

    In fact, that strikes me as supremely democratic.

  3. Chad Eliason February 4, 2010 at 11:58 PM #

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  4. Raella Quinn February 6, 2010 at 2:13 AM #

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