Let's Be Honest About Bandwidth Rationing
from the misleading-doesn't-help dept
Earlier this week, GigaOM released a new paper on bandwidth caps by Muayyad Al-Chalabi. It's been getting a fair amount of positive attention from around the web. I have to confess that I find this somewhat mystifying — I can only assume that those linking to it approvingly haven't actually bothered to read it. Mr. Malik does a lot of good work, but this paper is beneath his usually high standards. It is at times confused, at others dishonest, and almost uniformly irrelevant.
The paper even starts off on the wrong foot with the standard, formulaic, credential-establishing pseudo-academic gibberish, in this case about scale-free networks. Al-Chalabi sagely notes that: "A scale-free network is a network whose degree distribution follows a power law, at least asymptotically. That is, the fraction P(k) of nodes in the network having k connections to other nodes goes for large values of k as P(k) ~ k-y where k is a constant whose value is typically in the range 2<k<3." Fascinating! But it does sound vaguely familiar... hmm... now where could I have read about scale-free networks before? Oh right! Wikipedia!
There's no shame in using Wikipedia as a reference (although there probably should be some shame in copying from it verbatim without a citation). No, the real problem is that there's no indication that the author understands what any of this means, aside, perhaps, from it having something to do with graph theory. Still, at least the information on Wikipedia is correct. In the paper, the end of this section is the point at which things begin to go downhill.
Al-Chalabi's basic thesis is that the power users likely to be affected by Comcast's 250GB monthly bandwidth cap are vital to the network's overall health. To establish this, he talks about Skype — it's questionable whether a VoIP app that uses sub-dialup amounts of bandwidth is germane to a discussion of high bandwidth use, but let's press on. He mentions that machines on the Skype network can be classified as nodes, login servers or supernodes. This is true. Supernodes "exhibit higher degrees of connectivity than ordinary nodes". Also true! But here the paper conflates "connectivity" and "bandwidth use" and everything goes badly wrong. Supernodes sound great — they're super, after all! — but they're really just nodes that aren't sitting behind firewalls. That lets them help with NAT traversal and other network tasks, but it adds up to very little extra bandwidth use. Bandwidth limits are irrelevant to supernodes' existence.
Al-Chalabi goes on to defend the utility of power users elsewhere, namechecking "web-based applications and networks", "critical social network hubs" (p. 6) and Hulu, Netflix and iTunes (p. 7). But none of these applications rely on power users to relay their content through the network — they're all standard client/server apps. In truth, Al-Chalabi's power users are critical for the health of only one major type of network application: P2P. And that's fine! P2P is important and has plenty of legitimate uses. But despite the dire predictions of bandwidth-capped startups smothered in their metaphorical cribs, the bandwidth hogs currently on the rise are non-P2P ventures backed by huge corporations. Let's not pretend that we need to subsidize power users in order to maintain the health of our plucky web startups and their apps. It may well be that someday legitimate P2P-based apps like Joost and Steam arise as a meaningful force at odds with bandwidth limitations. At the moment, though, the initial wave of enthusiasm for integrating P2P into mainstream applications seems to be somewhat stalled.
The most startlingly dishonest part of the whitepaper comes at its end, when Al-Chalabi uses an estimate of monthly data use by an average household in 2012: 200GB per month. He then picks Time Warner's proposed tiered pricing scheme and uses it to arrive at a monthly bill of over $200. This is ridiculous. It's quite obvious that bandwidth caps and pricing schemes will adapt as data demands grow, provider networks improve and competition forces carriers to adapt to changing customer demands. I might as well assert that a minute of trans-Atlantic telephone communication costs $300 — that'd be the inflation-adjusted price, based on how much it cost when the service first became available. It's also odd that Al-Chalabi uses Time Warner's pricing scheme after primarily discussing Comcast in the rest of the paper. But then, his 2012 bandwidth use estimate falls underneath the 250GB cap that Comcast is instating. Even if the cap didn't go up over time, your data bill would (theoretically) remain constant throughout his example.
I'm sympathetic to where Al-Chalabi is coming from, and others here at Techdirt are even more so — Mike is on record as opposing bandwidth caps. But this whitepaper merely amounts to a complaint that a free lunch is ending. Bandwidth is clearly an increasingly limited resource. And in capitalist societies, money is how we allocate limited resources. The alternate solutions that Al-Chalabi proposes to the carriers on pages 6 and 8 — like P2P mirrors, improved service and "leveraging... existing relationships with content providers" — either assume that network improvements are free, would gut network neutrality, or are simply nonsense.
Yes, Comcast's bandwidth cap is a drag. Instead of disconnection, there should be reasonable fees imposed for overages. They should come up with a schedule defining how the cap will increase in the future. And the paper's suggestion of loosened limits during off-peak times is a good one. But the establishment of an actual, known limit does constitute a real improvement over the company's frankly despicable past treatment of the issue and its customers. Hopefully the data carriers' pricing schemes will continue to evolve in a more nuanced direction. Reasonable people can disagree about the specifics, but as this whitepaper accidentally proves, it's hard to make an honest case that people shouldn't have to pay for what they use.