NNSquad - Network Neutrality Squad

"Once Upon a Time" - Understanding Bandwidth Caps

Lauren Weinstein

Adapted from Lauren Weinstein's Blog
(Posting of 11 Apr 2009)


For nearly everyone who uses the Internet, their only access path for all Internet services from their home or business is their ISP.  It doesn't matter what videos you want to play, which searches you wish to make, nor what porn site you feel like browsing at the moment -- you do it all through your ISP ...


Once upon a time there was a beautiful village nestled deep in the mountains.

The residents of this isolated hamlet had always been cut off from easy access to the outside world.  Crude footpaths allowed for very slow and tedious transit in and out, with only very expensive and limited helicopter flights available as an alternative.  Not only that, they had no stores or services of their own, making everyday living a gigantic hassle.

One day ISPEYD Enterprises arrived in town and offered a fantastic deal.  They'd build a modern high-speed tunnel from the village to the big cities on the other side of the mountains.  Residents would only need to pay a fixed monthly fee for unlimited access to the tunnel.  ISPEYD would also be building stores and setting up other services for the local residents.

The village folk jump at the offer.  ISPEYD builds the tunnel, and does open a variety of shopping venues and other services in the village.

Everybody seems to love the tunnel for a few years, even though ISPEYD seems to be pretty secretive.  ISPEYD refuses to provide statistics about how many people are using the tunnel or how it is being used, claiming that this is "proprietary transportation network information."  Be that as it may, the tunnel seems to work pretty well, and since it's really the "only game in town" anyway, virtually everyone pays the monthly access fee.

As time goes by, residents of the village are quite glad to have the tunnel, because all manner of exciting new services -- many of them free! -- are rapidly appearing in the cities, accessible in a practical manner only via the tunnel itself. 

One day there's a surprising insert in the ISPEYD billing envelope that arrives in residents' mailboxes.

The insert announces not only an increase in rates to use the tunnel and the implementation of "slow" and "fast" lanes at different price points, but also describes caps on how many trips you're allowed to make per month, depending on how much you pay.  ISPEYD says that this is necessary to protect the tunnel from traffic congestion, but in their ads around town they begin to promote the added benefits of subscribing to the higher-priced tunnel access tiers nonetheless.

Many of the villagers become concerned.  They're now accustomed to all sorts of free or cheap services in the cities, but the relatively limited services that ISPEYD makes available in the village are much more expensive.  If it gets too pricey to use the tunnel, the villagers realize that they'll have no choice but to buy almost everything from ISPEYD.

The village elders ask ISPEYD to justify their new tiered and capped pricing system.  The company replies that they're a private firm and don't have to provide such information.  ISPEYD says that they own the tunnel and they'll manage it however they see fit.  ISPEYD also announces that they're thinking about using cameras in the tunnel to view the contents of cars passing through -- to see what sorts of items people are buying in the cities, so that ISPEYD can use this information for marketing purposes.

The tunnel's owners also remind the villagers that they are not permitted to use the tunnel for serving the needs of people who might want to enter the village from the city -- this is called the "no servers" prohibition in the ISPEYD Tunnel Terms of Service (ITTOS) to which all residents of the village are required to abide.

The villagers suddenly understand their predicament.  ISPEYD is now in virtually total control of all commerce in and out of the community, and can on its own volition at any time increase tunnel rates, limit tunnel access, and otherwise manipulate the situation to their own commercial benefit, by purposely making it prohibitively expensive for villagers to routinely patronize non-ISPEYD services.

While ISPEYD continues to insist that they're not trying to stifle competition and that all of their changes and restrictions are justified to avoid clogging the tunnel in the future, nobody in the village has enough information to know if this is really true.  ISPEYD insists that any attempt to regulate the tunnel would be disastrous, potentially stopping them from expanding services and perhaps even preventing them from continuing with existing tunnel maintenance.

The village is trapped.  They no longer love the tunnel -- but they have to use it.  Meanwhile, public filings and speeches by the ISPEYD CEO reveal plans to nudge villagers to the higher-priced tunnel tiers as rapidly as possible, and continue to express concerns about how cheap and free services outside the many villages that ISPEYD serves with tunnels are undercutting ISPEYD's own higher-priced service offerings within those communities.

The moral of the story? 

"A tempting transport tunnel 'tis a tool that may tilt the terrain toward a tethered taste of treachery, unless we take the trouble to test the team's total typical truthfulness today and tomorrow."

And we won't necessarily live happily ever after ...