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9Dec/09Off

AT&T plans on stricter mobile data plans

TechOps Guy: Nate

You know one thing that really drives me crazy about users? It's those people that think they have a right to megabits, if not tens of megabits of bandwidth for pennies a month. Those people that complain $50/mo is such a ripoff for 5-10Mbit broadband!

I have always had a problem with unlimited plans myself, I recall in the mid 90s getting kicked off more than a few ISPs for being connected to their modems 24/7 for days on end. The plan was unlimited. So I used it. I asked, even pleaded for the ISPs to tell me what is the real limit. You know what? Of all of the ones I tried at the time there was only one. I was in Orange County California at the time and the ISP was neptune.net. I still recall to this day the owner's answer. He did the math calculating the number of hours in a day/week/month and said that's how many I can use. So I signed up and used that ISP for a few years(until I moved to Washington) and he never complained(and almost never got a busy signal). I have absolutely no problem paying more for premium service, it's just I appreciate full disclosure on any service I get especially if it is advertised as unlimited.

Companies are starting to realize that the internet wasn't built to scale at the edge. It's somewhat fast at the core, but the pipes from the edge to the core are a tiny fraction of what they could be(and if we increased those edge pipes you need to increase the core by an order(s) of magnitude). Take for example streaming video.  There is almost non stop chatter on the net on how people are going to ditch TV and watch everything on the internet(or many things on the internet). I had a lengthy job interview with one such company that wanted to try to make that happen, they are now defunct, but they specialized in peer-to-peer video streaming with a touch of CDN. I remember the CTO telling me some stat he saw from Akamai, which is one of the largest CDNs out there(certainly the most well known I believe). Saying how at one point they were bragging about having something like 10,000 simultaneous video streams flowing through their system(or maybe it was 50,000 or something).

Put that in some perspective, think about the region around you, how many cable/satellite subscribers there are, and think how well your local broadband provider could handle unicast streaming of video from so many of them from sites out on the net. Things will come to a grinding halt very quickly.

It certainly is a nice concept to be able to stream video(I love that video, it's the perfect example illustrating the promise of the internet) and other high bit rate content(maybe video games), but the fact is it just doesn't scale. It works fine when there are only a few users. We need an order(s) of magnitude more bandwidth towards the edge to be able to handle this. Or, in theory at least, high grade multicast, and vast amounts of edge caching. Though multicast is complicated enough that I'm not holding my breath for it being deployed on a wide scale on the internet anytime soon, the best hope might be when everyone is on IPv6, but I'm not sure. On paper it sounds good, don't know how well it might work in practice though on a massive scale.

So as a result companies are wising up, a small percentage of users are abusing their systems by actually using them for what they are worth. The rest of the users haven't caught on yet. These power users are forcing the edge bandwidth providers to realize that the plans dreamed up by the marketing departments just isn't going to cut it(at least not right now, maybe in the future). So they are doing things like capping data transfers, or charging slightly excessive fees, or cutting users off entirely.

The biggest missing piece to the puzzle has been to provide an easy way for the end user to know how much bandwidth they are using so they can control the usage themselves, don't blow your monthly cap in 24 hours. It seems that Comcast is working on this now, and AT&T is working on it for their wireless subscribers. That's great news. Provide solid limits for their various tiers of service for the users, and provide an easy way for users to monitor their progress on their limits. I only wish wireless companies did that for their voice plans(how hard can it be for a phone to keep track of your minutes). That said I did sign up for Sprint's simply unlimited plan so I wouldn't have to worry about minutes myself, saved a good chunk off my previous 2000-minute plan. Even though I don't use anywhere near what I used to(seem to average 300-500 minutes/month at the most), I still like the unlimited plan just in case.

Anyways, I suppose it's unfortunate that the users get the shaft in the end, they should of gotten the shaft from the beginning but I suppose the various network providers wanted to get their foot in the door with the users, get them addicted(or at least try), then jack up the rates later once they realize their original ideas were not possible.

Bandwidth isn't cheap, at low volumes it can cost upwards of $100/Mbit or even more at a data center(where you don't need to be concerned about telco charges or things like local loops). So if you think your getting the shaft for paying $50/mo for a 10Mbit+ burstable connection, shut up and be thankful your not paying more than 10x that.

So no, I'm not holding my breath for wide scale deployment of video streaming over the internet, or wireless data plans that simultaneously allow you to download at multi-megabit speeds while providing really unlimited data plans at consumer level pricing. The math just doesn't work.

I'm not bitter or anything, you'd probably be shocked on how little bandwidth I actually use on my own broadband connection, it's a tiny amount, mainly because there isn't a whole lot of stuff on the internet that I find interesting anymore. I was much more excited back in the 90s, but as time as gone on my interest in the internet in general has declined(probably doesn't help that my job for the past several years has been supporting various companies where their main business was internet-facing).

I suppose the next step beyond basic bandwidth monitoring might be something along the lines of internet roaming. In which you can get a data plan with a very high cap(or unlimited), but only for certain networks(perhaps mainly local ones to avoid going over the backbones), but pay a different rate for general access to the internet. Myself, I'm very much for net neutrality only where it relates to restricting bandwidth providers from directly charging content companies for access for their users(e.g. Comcast charging Google extra so Comcast users can watch Youtube). They should be charging the users for that access, not the content providers.

(In case your wondering what inspired this post it was the AT&T iPhone data plan changes that I linked to above).

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