Put a cap on it - Telecoms regulation

Un article intéressant sur la limite potentielle qu’on peut imposer  à un utilisateur du Web.

Par contre, les standards américains pour atteindre cette soi-disant limite sont nettement plus élevés que celle du Canada.

Extrait de : Put a cap on it - Telecoms regulation, The Economist, Mar 17th 2011

COMCAST used to have a secret limit as to how much data it allowed its cable-broadband customers to consume each month. Subscribers would cross the limit, have their service cancelled, and be provided no recourse. America has adopted a soft-touch approach to regulating broadband, defined as an information service instead of a telecoms one, and the federal government prevents states' attorneys general from addressing complaints about service. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency which oversees such things, is mostly toothless when it comes to individual complaints.

After years of public shaming and the potential threat of Congressional action—under a regulation-averse Republican leadership—Comcast finally came clean. In October 2008, the firm began enforcing a loose 250 GB per month limit on combined downstream and upstream usage. Crossing the line does not produce an automatic warning, but the company reserves the right to wag its finger and subsequently shut out any egregious overuser. Over a year ago, the company started rolling out a continuously updated usage monitor to provide even more transparency. (Comcast's website inconveniently and inexplicably dropped this Babbage's meter a few months ago, and Comcast support appear incapable of restoring it.)

Other American providers have followed suit.

1)      Charter imposes similar limits, from 100 GB to 500 GB per month depending on the service level.

2)      AT&T just said it will shortly impose 150 GB and 250 GB limits based on service tiers (slower all-copper DSL versus fibre-backed DSL). Scarcity is not the motive.

Providers claim congestion, capacity limits, and other woes that are supposed to cajole the FCC to limit its intervention, and keep lawmakers away. The watered-down version of FCC's network-neutrality rules, currently winding their way through the legislative process, contain no language whatsoever about monthly usage caps, only about impermissible behaviour by cable firms and telecoms. They must not discriminate among the origin or type of data entering or leaving their networks except for nebulously defined purposes of network management. In other words, broadband companies may not toll particular superhighway lanes, but there is nothing to stop them from putting up a brick wall across the road.

Regardless of providers' public pronouncements, the root of the problem is internet video. Live streaming television, advertising-backed programmes from networks and Hulu, legal downloadable nuggets of episodes or complete movies (both paid and free), or pirated peer-to-peer files are all becoming alternatives to channel-based, real-time delivery of television over a wire to the home. Caps are a last-ditch effort to preserve a fusty model with artificial limits that resemble broadcast TV.

Providers want to offer faster speeds to justify more expensive monthly rates, even though current bandwidth is sufficient for nearly all purposes bar video streaming and downloads. (Those downloading a Mac or Windows operating system upgrade may argue otherwise, but have reason to grumble a few times a year at best.)

Often, it is impossible to tell from the alacrity with which web pages load up alone whether the connection is running at 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps. Despite this, the Obama administration is (gingerly) promoting efforts to have 100 Mbps connections reach 100m people, stressing educational and employment opportunities.

The use of caps allows providers to dish out bandwidth with one hand and take it away with the other. The companies have vastly increased the capacity of various copper, coaxial and fibre lines, but artificially separate out a portion—at least half and often much more—for video which a set-top box or a broadband modem spits out as an apparently distinct service. Cable firms simultaneously push out hundreds of digital channels, while telecoms firms rely on multiple digital streams from live broadcast or cable TV or on-demand pay-per-view. It is as though the water main were divided as it entered the home and a steady, modest stream was made available for showers and at the tap, while most of it was always at the ready for a coin-operated washing machine.

Increasing speed on the internet portion, which would allow consumers to give up on TV subscriptions, is balanced by capping volume. If a consumer does not monitor usage, his internet access can be withdrawn or, in AT&T's case, overage fees of $10 charged for every additional 50 GB of usage. (That said, AT&T's overage fee is the most reasonably priced and sensible policy implemented for caps, since the charges bear some resemblance to the cost of delivery. Still, the same $10 charge applies whether the limit was breached by 1 MB or a smidgen under 50 GB.)

The vast majority of subscribers never get close to these limits, providers say, and Babbage's back-of-the-envelope calculations accord with this claim. At the typical speed offered to most customers three to five years ago, consuming 250 GB would mean going full throttle at 5 Mbps for over 100 hours during a month. With the 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps service offered in many American urban areas today, this drops to about 45 hours and 5.5 hours, respectively. Babbage and his wife have no cable, satellite or IPTV subscription—relying on internet delivery from Amazon, Hulu, iTunes and Netflix—and have only overtaxed their Comcast line when your correspondent used 600 GB in a month while testing online backup systems. When our usage monitor was working, we usually passed only 100 GB.

For now households have little reason to tap 100 Mbps for hours on end, even if every member of a large family were streaming or downloading high-definition video simultaneously. But as streaming video quality increases relative to available bandwidth, and video downloads edge up to Blu-Ray quality with fewer compression compromises, users will inexorably come up against these caps. The move to the cloud presents another problem. If backups, files and media are sprinkled all over the web, accessing them will require shifting vast quantities of data back and forth. If the providers were serious about their data-hungriest customers being the biggest problems, caps would be set between 500 GB and one terabyte per month, where they make sense.

The fundamental reason why it is hard to take caps seriously is how uneven they remain. AT&T imposed no ostensible limit before its upcoming move except for the most extreme users, many of whom might have been dupes of malware exploiting their machines to serve stolen files or send spam. Verizon and Cablevision, locked in competition between fiber-to-the-home and relatively cheap super-fast cable broadband in the Northeast have no caps. Comcast would be only too happy to provide the business service this Babbage gets in his out-of-home office to his residence with the same unlimited service for a few dollars more each month. And Britain's BT just removed a 300 GB cap on its more expensive plan, though it retains the right to throttle the heaviest users during peak congestion.

The erosion of a market is never a pretty thing to watch, especially in places in which de facto or de jure monopolies prevent competitors from entering the fray on equal terms. American internet providers are fighting a losing, rearguard action even with the odds stacked in their favour. The trickle of video has become a torrent.

Capping it may soon be impossible.