Why Tiered Broadband Is the Enemy of Innovation

It should come as no surprise: Incumbents are beginning to act like incumbents. But while the cable companies are the first ones to jump on the tiered broadband bandwagon, they won’t be the last. Their argument for limiting bandwidth and data transfers based on price sounds like a good idea, especially as a way to get bargain hunters to buy. In the long run, however, tiered broadband is a terrible idea that will bring the innovation inspired by flat-rate broadband to a screeching halt.

Flat-rate broadband – however cheap or expensive (depending on your point of view) it might be – inspired the formation of Skype, YouTube, Facebook, Apple’s iTunes and MySpace, amongst others. It allowed us to freely experiment, to embrace both the applications and the ideas they represented, such as VoIP, online video, digital downloads and social networking. [digg=http://digg.com/tech_news/Why_Tiered_Broadband_Is_the_Enemy_of_Innovation]

The emergence of these applications has, in turn, spurred demand for broadband in the U.S., much like the illegal version of Napster jump-started the demand for cable and DSL broadband in the late 1990s. And they’ve helped lift the number of broadband subscriptions to U.S. cable and DSL companies to 69 million by the end of 2007, subscriptions that have brought in enough cash to pay for the cable companies’ foray into voice and to help with their digital transition. Yet now these guys want to slaughter the golden goose. Why?


The answer is in my living room. Thanks to a fast connection from Covad, I now get my video fix over the broadband pipe. Apple’s iTunes, Jaman, MLB.com, Hulu.com, CBS and scores of other services make it possible from me to watch shows either on my laptop screen or, in some cases, on my big-screen TV via Apple TV.

I used to pay Comcast about $150 a month, but now I pay them zilch, instead forking over a mere $30 a month to Covad. Oops! In the future, the emergence of much higher-speed DOCSIS 3.0 and fiber-based broadband will make it even easier to download or stream videos, which scares the bejesus out of the phone companies. And that is one of the reasons they are introducing tiered broadband.

But consider the bandwidth caps. I asked some of my telecom sources to help me put into perspective the new tiered-pricing structure with which Time Warner Cable is experimenting. TWC’s lowest price tier – 768 kbps at $29.95 a month for 5 Gbytes and $1 per GB – may seem reasonable, but it isn’t.

If you assume that we’re pulling down data at a steady 20 kilobits per second for every second of the month, the total monthly transfer comes to about 6.8 gigabytes. At a higher speed of 768 kbps, that jumps to over 250 gigabytes, and at 1 megabits per second, the monthly download will hit 324 gigabytes. At first blush, those look like awfully generous numbers. After all, who uses their connections consistently?


However, if you take into account our average behavior online, data transfers start to add up really fast. Stacey crunched the numbers yesterday and came up with an interesting conclusion: If you bought the monthly 15 mbps/40 GB transfer option for about $56 a month, you’d get about 40 hours of standard definition video along with enough bandwidth for your normal browsing and surfing habits. That’s just over 75 minutes of SD Internet video every day – two or three shows at best – which means you might need to continue buying the “video connection” in order to watch more television. Sure you can slice and dice the data transfers with other online activities, but this is all about video.

From that perspective, you would think that Comcast’s proposal for 250 GB a month is pretty reasonable. Actually it’s not, especially if you factor in how quickly we’re moving towards HD downloads. With HD, each roughly 2-hour long movie is going to consume about 8 GB, while live sports events, etc., when watched in higher quality can take up some 13 GB. Remember we share our Internet connections with multiple people in a household. So Before you know it, that 250 GB isn’t enough.

Cable companies are trying to convince Wall Street that they need to upgrade their networks to DOCSIS 3.0 in order to compete with telecom operators, especially those with fiber connections. The idea of metered broadband makes the big spending on these networks more palatable for Wall Street.

As for consumers, the cable companies have evoked the P2P bogeyman. I spoke with Time Warner spokesperson Alex Dudley, who claimed that some 5 percent of its user base abuses its network through the use of P2P, causing problems for the remaining subscribers. “Video is the most bandwidth-intensive use right now, and it is not people that go to iTunes but instead it is P2P which sucks bandwidth in the system,” he said. There are some questions about that claim.

My biggest fear is that as these companies try and protect their video revenues, they are
doing more harm than good, and putting roadblocks in the way of interesting services
that make broadband worth having. When I asked Dudley if his company was putting innovation at risk by limiting flat-rate broadband — if they might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater — he noted that many of these startups and services are built on their infrastructure.

“You need to understand that the networks are going to be managed and we need to make profit,” he said. “We are trying to find a balance here, and it is too soon to say that we are throwing baby out of the bathwater.”

Dudley was, however, quick to point out that TWC’s experiment in Texas was just that – a test. If consumers don’t want it, the company is going to back away from it. “I think this is a trial and we are going to learn from this trial,” he said. If the results of our poll are any indication, they would be wise to back away from it — and soon.

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