ISPs and cell phone companies have long been known for raising the spectre of the "bandwidth hog" in order to justify data caps or bandwidth throttling. Considering most ISPs are also television providers, throttling and capping data usage helps push some customers back towards their TV sets
. (Depending on how many other eggs are in the company's basket, this also helps push them back into theaters and tilts their heads back to regular old radio, as these caps make streaming services very unattractive.)
Karl Bode at DSL Reports has finally obtained some data which confirms what many of us had suspected all along: the Bandwidth Hog is a convenient bogeyman rather than an actual being
. Analysts Benoit Felton and Herman Wagter managed to talk an "anonymous mid size DSL company from North America" into sharing its data on customer usage. Not surprisingly, despite their open invitation to the ISPs to contest their "disruptive user" argument, no other broadband/DSL service offered to provide any data, suggesting they're already well aware of what usage numbers actually show.
In a blog post, Felten notes that the pair took real user data for all customers connected to a single aggregation link and analyzed the network statistics on data consumption -- in five minute time increments -- over a whole day. What they found is that capping ISPs often don't really understand customer usage patterns, and are confusing data consumption (how much data was downloaded over a whole period) and bandwidth usage (how much bandwidth capacity was used at any given point in time).
What they discovered is data that runs in stark contrast to a lot of the claims put out there by some familiar, larger ISPs when justifying caps and overages. Among the pair's findings is that the top 1% of data consumers (which they call "very heavy consumers," instead of the already adversarial "hog") account for 20% of the overall consumption.
Looking deeper into the data, they also found that about 61% of very heavy data consumers download 95% of the time or more, but only 5% of those who download at least 95% of the time are very heavy data consumers. While 83% of very heavy data consumers are amongst the top 1% of bandwidth users during at least one five minute time window at peak hours, they only represent 14.3% of said Top 1% of users at those times.
That's a lot of percentages and percentages of percentages. Fortunately, a commenter at DSL Reports was able to use the "dreaded" highway analogy to simplify things:
1% of vehicle drivers on the road travel a disproportionate amount of miles compared to the average driver. But they are on the road all the time. Most of the time they are on the road there is no rush hour congestion.The heavy drivers are likely to be involved in rush hour traffic jams, but only represent a small, not terribly relevant, fraction of total drivers in the traffic jam.Limiting the amount of miles a driver can drive, does nothing to widen the roads and little to keep people off the roads during traffic jams, thus does not help with congestion.
In other words, internet usage tends to be heaviest at certain points of the day, and installing caps or throttling supposedly heavy users does nothing to relieve that congestion. Instead, it punishes users across the board by hitting some of them with additional fees and offering very little in the way of improving connection or speed for the rest of the users online during these "traffic jams."
Felten concludes that ISPs themselves need to better understand the difference between data usage and bandwidth consumption, or face driving their customers to more reasonable competitors. That's assuming consumers have a choice, given caps exist in many markets largely due to no competition.
That's the real problem. For many people, there are few options. And most of the ISPs are more than happy to install caps and overage fees, especially if someone in the market is already doing just that. Bode also notes the adversarial relationship with their customers that the ISPs are creating through the usage of terms like "bandwidth hog" or "disruptive user." Rather than look into improving infrastructure, they'd much rather vilify certain paying customers in order to deflect attention away from their service limitations.
Karl Bode expands on this:
It would also be naive to assume many of the larger ISPs -- stocked with number crunchers and network analysts -- don't already know everything Felten stated. However, there's a reason that ISPs don't like bandying real, raw data about -- and it's because there's a few large carriers that like to use bogus science to justify anti-consumer behavior, most recently with AT&T's announcement of caps and overages for DSL and U-Verse users. When asked to prove that these caps and overages were necessary, AT&T couldn't -- something ignored by general tech press coverage of the move.
As we've noted repeatedly, most carriers impose caps and overages claiming it's due to either network congestion or financial necessity. In realty, caps and overages are implemented by carriers that simply want to jack up the cost of bandwidth so they can protect TV revenues from Internet video by making Internet video more costly and less appealing. The financial "necessity" of moving away from the flat-rate pricing model is proven false quarterly by earnings reports.
While it's nice to finally have some data on hand to debunk the "bandwidth hog" myth, most ISPs will be able to dismiss it as not being representative of their customers' usage patterns. After all, they're still refusing to provide any data to back up their claims. In areas without competition, this myth will still be used as a scapegoat for everything from hard caps to lousy connections.