Should You Have a Data Cap?

data recovery

data recovery (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Over the last few years most of the cable companies and some telcos have implemented data caps on high-speed Internet access. They always claimed that caps were necessary to help protect their networks from congestion. They claimed that heavy users would clog the networks and make data speeds slow for everybody else. But as someone who sees hundreds of networks, this claim holds no technical validity, except in some isolated instances and in some parts of some networks.

Michael Powell, the head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association admitted publicly last week that caps are not about congestion, but rather are about ‘pricing fairness”. In the telecom world there is a general rule of thumb that the most active 15% of your users will use 85% of any resource, be that minutes, data, etc. And it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If cable companies had come along and lowered prices for the 85% who are not heavy users and then made up the difference on higher rates for the 15%, then his argument would resonate with the public. But nobody saw any rate reductions and it’s hard to see data caps as anything more than a way to make even more money from data service.

One has to just note that the US has some of the highest-priced Internet services in the world to poke holes in NCTA’s announcement. If you compare US rates to the Far East or Europe it is easy to see that our rates are way out of line on a cost per megabit of service available to customers.

To make it worse, cable companies are starting to raise data rates. And this follows a ten-year period where the underlying cost of raw data has gotten cheaper every year. When a cable company set a monthly rate of $40 or $50 a decade ago, during that decade the cost of buying wholesale access to the Internet has probably dropped by 90%. It’s my opinion that cable companies know that in another decade that they are going to mostly become ISPs since cable and telephone are both dying products. They are starting to creep the rates up now to hedge against the day when that is their only product.

But even assuming that our rates are too high and that profits are really high, should any ISP consider any sort of cap or limitation on how customers use their data. I think the answer is yes, and it is not for any of the reasons that the cable companies have given.

Using my metric, 15% of the users on a network create most of the data usage. But absent any rules on how the network can be used, a small number of them could be using most of the usage for that group. For example, customers who operate servers and operate ecommerce site or other very busy sites like a pornography server can use huge amounts of data on the network. Much of that data is sent in the upload direction and doesn’t cost as much for a carrier as downloaded data, but a few such sites actually can clog a part of the network if they are busy continuously. The way around this problem is a prohibition against using servers on a basic residential data product. But if you are going to have this kind of policy you also need to have some way to measure how much data each customer is using.

On the download side of the equation, there are always a few customers who abuse any system. There are internet hoarders just as there are hoarders of anything else, and so you might want to set a cap that discourages continuous downloading. Comcast has implemented data caps of around 300 Gb in a lot of markets lately. If a customer downloads movies at a very high quality rate, they can use around 2 Gb per hour. If they watch non-HD movies it’s about half of that. And so a 300 Gb data cap would limit people to watching 150 hours of HD programming or 300 hours of normal programming per month. That works out to a limit of 5 hours per day or HD programming or 10 hours per day of normal programming. That may seem like a lot, but if each person in the family is watching their own programming, that is a really small limit.

I have advised my clients to institute a fairer cap, but to still have one. For instance, a cap set at 1 Tb (1,000 Gb) allows for over three times the usage than the Comcast cap. Anybody going over a 1 Tb cap is likely a data hoarder because that requires somebody to be downloading video more or less continuously every day of the week. Every network has a different configuration and so this is not a hard and fast limit. But I suggest some limit on data, at a very high rate that will only affect a truly small handful of people. The Comcast rate is set to make any family who actually uses their bandwidth to pay more. My suggestion is to set a cap that stops bad abuse, while giving people what they have paid for.

Diminished Clout for Rural Telcos

FCC Open Meeting - Broadband Plan

There were two recent announcements in the industry that has to have the rural telephone industry shaking their heads a little. The announcements are not specifically negative, but they are indicative of the fact that the industry has lost a lot of influence in Washington.

First, the president has announced the nomination of Tom Wheeler as the new head of the FCC. His background is as a high-powered lobbyist, and he was the head of both the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) from 1979 to 1984 and CTIA – the Wireless Association from 1992 to 2004.

His nomination has come with mixed reviews from the industry with many fearing that he will favor issues that promote the wireless industry. But there have been others who know him who think he will be a fair arbiter and will step up to the position. As someone in the industry I obviously share the trepidation that he would prefer one industry over another, and I would have the same concern regardless of which industry he formerly lobbied for. I’m not a big fan of putting lobbyists into powerful government positions overseeing the industry they once represented. That just seems to be asking for trouble and at the very best adds complication to every decision they make in their new role. I can certainly see how small telcos in particular could feel uneasy about this nomination.

The other news I saw was that Representatives Peter Welch (D-Vermont) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio) announced the formation of a bipartisan working group as part of the Energy and Commerce Committee that was going to focus on rural telecommunications issues. The group will be known as the Rural Telecommunications Working Group.

This new group is going to focus on a range of issues including call completion (meaning making sure that everybody can call everybody), broadband access and speeds, and wireless spectrum.

Other members of the Rural Telecommunications Working Group include: John Barrow (D-GA), Bruce Braley (D-IA), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Lois Capps (D-CA), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Renee Ellmers (R-NC), Corey Gardner (R-CO), H. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Brett Guthrie (R-KY), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Billy Long (R-MO), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Doris Matsui (D-CA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Lee Terry (R-NE), and Paul Tonko (D-NY).

It is certainly good that Congress started this working group, because having anybody look at rural issues is a positive. But I did notice that there are more representatives in the group from large urban states than there are from truly rural areas. Any old-timer (like me) with a rural telco background will remember that there used to be a strong coalition in Congress who fostered rural telephony issues. But in recent years the rural telecom support in Congress largely faded away, due in part to retirements of Congressmen who supported rural telephony and due to other factors like the growth of the wireless industry. I appreciate that this new group has been formed, but it makes me remember a day when rural companies could depend on the support of Congress.

These two announcements made me realize that the political world has changed as much as the technological world for the rural telco industry. When I got into the telecom world there was no such thing as a cell phone, and now somebody who was the head lobbyist for that industry might be the next head of the FCC. Who woulda thunk it?