An ISP’s Dirty Secret

December 20th, 2012

As many of you already know, broadband speeds are getting better in the U.S., at least in some parts of the country. Google is currently testing a gigabit Internet service in Kansas City known as Google Fiber, although the first speed test I saw covering service quality recorded download and upload speeds of 700 megabits. But that’s nothing too shabby. I’d take 100 megabits if I could get it affordably, which, unfortunately, I can’t.

Imagine downloading all the high definition movies you want in minutes, rather than hours. It seems a way of realizing the dream of complete access to all your TV shows and movies in the cloud. You won’t need a cable or satellite account either, and some of you have already cut the cord. I suppose judicious selections of online versions of your favorite stations, iTunes, Netflix and Hulu Plus can give you all or most of the content you want.

Unfortunately there is one troubling limitation that threatens to complicate matters seriously, and that’s your ISP’s bandwidth cap. Alas, most ISPs don’t tell you about it upfront, as a wireless carrier might do when you buy a specific package. It may be hidden in the fine print somewhere, or support will tell you when you’ve exceeded the cap and risk a service slowdown or interruption. Worse, they may still proclaim “unlimited,” as if the word had something other than the conventional meaning.

Here in the Phoenix area, I have access to a pair of broadband services. Cox Communications offers packages with up to 55 megabit downloads (5 megabit uploads), with a cap of 400GB. The only competitive package comes from CenturyLink (which acquired Qwest in 2010), which offers up to 40 megabits downloads and up to 20 megabit uploads. In the real world, CenturyLink downloads are actually faster than Cox, and upload speeds blow Cox away. But their bandwidth cap is pegged at 250GB for downloads. You can upload as much as you want without incurring any penalties.

Now you probably realize that it doesn’t take too many days of constant HD movie downloads before you reach and exceed the ISP’s limits. With both Cox and CenturyLink, you’ll first get warnings, but they reserve the right to terminate your service with extreme prejudice for your “evil” behavior.

I understand that ISPs may be constrained by server capacity, and thus feel they have to restrict users to a fixed amount of bandwidth before you run afoul of their quality standards. But it’s really more about the number of simultaneous connections and the amount of data being downloaded at any moment in time rather than the total, actually. It’s not as if your ISP is storing your content, or at least I hope not.

Now if you’re getting your TV content from your ISP, there are no restrictions, since everything originates on their network. Certainly I can see the marketing advantage in all this, although customers should be allowed to download whatever content they want without being discriminated against. There is a form of net neutrality in effect in the U.S., but it doesn’t address needless bandwidth caps. It just mandates broadband equality.

Of course, if you are careful about how much you download, or your lucky enough to have an ISP in your city with more liberal bandwidth caps — or no caps at all — you have nothing whatever to worry about. For me, I continue to monitor the content I download, and I only occasionally use iTunes to rent a movie.

If Apple plans to introduce a subscription TV/movie service, however, they will confront this obstacle, and it’s not something that is easily remedied, unless the broadband providers get their acts together and treat customer needs fairly. But one big problem is that, in many locales, they have no competition. If your broadband provider doesn’t give you the service you want, you may not find another with equal or better service. This is the sort of monopoly situation that can cause abuses of this sort.

Besides, it’s not a trivial matter to start a new ISP. If you want to build your own network, and not just lease bandwidth from someone else, you have to spend a bundle digging up streets and laying cable. For that, you need permission from localities, and conform to specific licensing regulations. Even then, it’s possible a housing or apartment complex has already made a deal with another provider for wiring, and thus will not allow you to use someone else’s pipes. Sure, they can’t stop you from installing a satellite dish, assuming that you conform to some basic installation scenarios and have a clear path to the satellites themselves. But ISPs? Other than dial-up, forget about an alternative.

I realize that a large portion of my readers live in other countries, and thus your ISP may have different services, bandwidth caps, and other requirements. You still may or may not have an option if the service you get is subpar.

Although I’m not necessarily a fan of Google, I like the concept of Google Fiber. It’s cheap, and even offers a TV service to compete with cable and satellite. If the Kansas City experiment succeeds, it would be real nice to see Google laying cables in my area. I do not expect to see the new broadband service spread far and wide so quickly, though, but maybe the existence of Google Fiber will inspire other ISPs to clean up their acts.

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