Consumers using an expanding array of broadband services, including movie downloads, video games, online backup, and streaming audio and video, are flooding the nation's broadband pipes with data--and it could cost them.
Consumer advocates say that it's only a matter of time before average high-speed Internet users get slapped with the label "hog."
Craig Aaron, spokesperson for fSavetheInternet.com, worries that Internet users may soon be charged extra for using "too much" bandwidth or cut off from using some bandwidth-hungry software applications.
Bandwidth demands in the United States have been doubling each year for some time, according to Tom Donnelly, cofounder of Sandvine, a network management firm. As this trend continues, Donnelly says, it puts pressure on ISPs and on applications such as file-sharing software and streaming multimedia content, giving ISPs an incentive to clamp down on heavy bandwidth users.
Major broadband ISPs shrug off criticism that their networks can't handle the increased demand for bandwidth. "We've been successfully delivering broadband services to our customers for 10 years, and that's not going to change anytime soon," says Mitch Bowling, senior vice president and general manager for Comcast's high-speed Internet group.
Time Warner, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, and other ISPs echo those sentiments. "Our network is extremely robust and [bandwidth] issues aren't a problem for us," says Jim Mailla, spokesperson for Optimum Online, a Charter Communications company.
Despite the rosy picture painted by ISPs, some service providers are already clamping down on bandwidth hogs. Others are experimenting with payment plans (such as tiered pricing) that raise the cost to consumers of excessive bandwidth use.
Analysts say that these moves indicate increasing pressure on broadband systems due to the volume of demand, and note that leading ISPs are moving quickly to avert bandwidth bottlenecks, as well as to forgo spending billions to upgrade aging networks.
For instance, Comcast has been tinkering with the way file-sharing software works on its network, slowing transfer speeds of data used by applications such as BitTorrent. Comcast has also been giving the heave-ho to customers who use the Internet most heavily, explaining that certain individual downloaders are using as much bandwidth as some of its business customers.
Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas explains that a single customer who uses disproportionately more bandwidth than his or her neighbors can slow down the Internet for everyone on the block. Comcast has faced a user uproar for manipulating the way file-sharing programs work and for introducing bandwidth caps on individual accounts without identifying what those caps are.Time Warner Cable's Approach
Time Warner Cable is experimenting with managing bandwidth by billing its customers, not at a flat monthly rate, but on the basis of how much bandwidth each customer uses. The cable company is rolling out a trial version of a consumption-based billing system in Texas later this year. "We have more than enough bandwidth, but we are looking to the future," says Alex Dudley, spokesperson for Time Warner Cable.
Under the new billing scheme, customers who exceed their monthly bandwidth allotment risk incurring an overage charge. A spokesperson says that the billing scheme isn't in place yet, so the company doesn't yet have any hard numbers available regarding these charges.
Cox Communications says that it now imposes "monthly consumption caps" on its customers and reserves the right to "suspend" account holders who use more than their allotted bandwidth. The company outlines these policies on its Web site.
If Cox users consistently exceed their bandwidth limits, Cox either sends them an e-mail or calls to urge them to reduce bandwidth consumption or upgrade to a higher tier of service, says David Deliman, a Cox spokesperson. Cox wouldn't say whether the company has ever ousted a customer.
AT&T's CEO Randall Stephenson has said publicly that he has considered blocking pirated content from the AT&T network. Big Champagne, a market research firm that tracks file-sharing sites, estimates that peer-to-peer traffic accounts for more than half of all Internet traffic.
Bandwidth issues will move toward center stage in the months ahead as Congress considers a new Net neutrality bill that Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced earlier this week. ("Net neutrality" refers to the principle that all Internet traffic be treated equally.) Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has stepped up its investigation into complaints that Comcast secretly slowed file sharing by its customers.
The debate over Net neutrality--between those who believe in unfettered access to the Internet and the ISPs that manage the on-ramps to the Internet--is getting louder quickly. (Read Macworld's series: Inside Net Neutrality for more information).
ISPs say that it's time to re-examine the FCC's longstanding policy prohibiting ISPs from "blocking" specific applications. The FCC does permit "reasonable network management," which ISPs interpret in one way and Net neutrality advocates in another.
Net neutrality proponents agree that network management is necessary. But managing a network too stringently comes dangerously close to violating the principles underlying Net neutrality, they say.
"Without some type of management of the Internet by ISPs, the Internet would become unstable," says Jay Rolls, vice president of technology for Cox Communications. Like virtually every ISP contacted for this story, Cox says that it engages in various forms of Internet traffic management (not blocking), called "traffic shaping" and "traffic prioritization."
For example, according to Rolls, Cox gives priority on its network to applications--such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)--that require a consistent and reliable Internet connection, over applications--such as e-mail--that don't.
Privacy advocates express concern that, in order to make sense of Internet traffic, an ISP must "look" at it to determine whether bandwidth data is Web browsing content, a file transfer, or VoIP communication. That "look" is tantamount to snooping, they say--not only seeing what kind of content is being downloaded in general, but also observing what the precise content is.
If an ISP is going to identify data packets that belong to e-mail, music file downloads, or VoIP, privacy advocates argue, what's to stop it from peeking at the content, reading the e-mail, identifying the downloaded song, or noting who is saying what during a VoIP call.
It's like a postal worker opening every letter tand scanning the contents to see whether it's junk mail, a bill, a love letter, or something else.
From the ISPs' point of view, the chief culprits in cases of bandwidth hogging are file-sharing applications such as BitTorrent. "These programs are like perfectly designed robots that are programmed to eat as much as they can at an all-you-can-eat buffet," says Sandvine's Donnelly.
Donnelly says that even though consumer bandwidth consumption habits haven't changed much over the past few years, they are causing a rapidly escalating demand for data transmission. The more consumers take advantage of bandwidth-hungry services like Apple TV Take Two (which now allows you to download large, high-definition movies), he says, the greater the challenge will be for ISPs.Not Ready for Future
What would ISPs do if legally downloading high-definition movies, streaming TV shows from sites such as Hulu.com, and backing up PCs online became as commonplace for consumers as Silicon Valley companies hope they will? In big trouble, responds ABI's Schatt, vice president at ABI Research.
Schatt says that ISPs need to spend a lot more money now to beef up their networks' bandwidth capacity for the future. ISPs are reluctant to admit that there's a problem, he adds, because "no investor likes to hear the phrase 'upcoming capital expenditures.'"
"ISPs don't want to spend money to upgrade their networks, so they have to limit the amount of bandwidth a customer can use," says Mike McGuire, an analyst with market research firm Gartner.
McGuire says that the situation is likely to get a lot worse with regard to quality of service and value for customers before it gets better.
According to network monitoring firm Keynote Systems, broadband users rarely feel the impact of bandwidth bottlenecks today unless a big media event causes a brief spike in Web use or unless a major component of the Internet infrastructure suffers unexpected damage. Keynote describes these types of Internet slowdowns as virtually imperceptible brown-outs.
Neither Keynote nor any of the analysts consulted for this story would forecast when or whether the Internet--left in its current state--might start slowing because of bandwidth traffic congestion.
Schatt says that he wouldn't be surprised if ISPs--hoping to push customers to higher tiers of service--let the less expensive tiers of broadband service deteriorate.
Sandvine's Donnelly anticipates a day when ISPs will charge a premium to customers for access to better-managed networks--as opposed to higher-speed networks. For example, an ISP could offer you access to a tier of service in which bandwidth for peer-to-peer applications was not artificially slowed and where VoIP traffic was prioritized--for a price.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, emphasizes that ISPs have a lot of bandwidth capacity on the back end. The real challenge for ISPs, he says, is to improve their networks' so-called last mile to the home. "The [profit] margins just aren't there for ISPs to justify expensive network upgrades," Enderle says.
Enderle believes that, when given the option of raising bandwidth capacity versus raising monthly broadband fees, ISPs will choose the latter every time. Earlier this month, AT&T raised the price of some of its monthly DSL broadband data service plans by $5.