Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Petition on Broadband Advertising

I've become rather depressed about broadband advertising. I found it very difficult to discover the web page describing my own ISPs traffic policy. Furthermore if you compare it to this version from January on the Wayback Machine you can see that the headline speed on the "Large" package has gone up from 4Mbit/sec to 10Mbit/sec, but the evening download limit has merely increased from 800MB to 1,200MB, while extra restrictions have been added starting at 10am as well. Somehow that 10MBit/sec upgrade doesn't feel so generous now: when I want to install Fedora 10 I'd better make sure I schedule the download to start after 9pm.

Virgin Media, in common with most other ISPs, says that the few people who make heavy use of their broadband link reduce capacity for everyone else, and that providing truly "unlimited" service for these few would mean higher bills for everyone. They do indeed have a point. If I want truly unlimited service then I'm sure I can get it, for a price. And the fact is that I probably don't want to pay the price. The occasions when I do want a multi-gigabyte download are sufficiently rare that I can put up with scheduling around Virgin's traffic limits.

So why am I depressed about it? Its because my problem with finding Virgin Media's traffic management policy is not unusual. A sample taken from Google found:
  • TalkTalk have a 40GB monthly limit right up there on the front page, although I'm not sure if you can find out how much of your limit you have used this month. What happens when you use it all? Presumably you are cut off until next month.

  • O2 claims "unlimited" usage, but if you search the site for the word "unlimited" you find that excessive use at peak times will lead to warnings and then account termination. They don't define "excessive" or "peak time". I couldn't find a link to this information from their list of broadband features; it certainly wasn't obvious.

  • Tiscali have a similar policy, except that after three warnings they limit your peak time speed. They also don't define what "excessive" and "peak time" mean, and they don't say how long this will last or what the speed limit will be. This page was two not-very-prominent links away from the package features list.

  • Fast actually sells a range of monthly capacity limits. They warn you by email when you hit 90%, and when you go over 100% they throttle you down to 100kBit/sec. Full marks!
So out of 5 providers (including Virgin) we have only one that makes all the limits and policies clear up-front while three try to hide behind weasel words and hard-to-find web pages. This makes it difficult for consumers to figure out what they are buying. Is Tiscali's unstated policy better or worse value for money that one of the Fast packages? Even if its better at the moment, will it still be so next month? As a consumer I have no way of knowing. Worse yet, if I were a technically naive consumer I might not even realise that the question needed asking. "Unlimited" sounds much better than "40Gb monthly limit".

I think that something needs doing about this. However the Advertising Standards Authority have wimped out: they have declared that "unlimited" actually means "95% of users don't hit the limit in any given month". So its hardly surprising that people are confused.

Therefore I have started an on-line petition at the Number 10 web site. If you are a British citizen or resident then I urge you to sign it. The petition calls on the Government to require ISPs to make all caps and limits on their services a prominent part of their advertising. Only when they do so will consumers have a clear choice between different packages.


Barry Kelly said...

I use Be Pro (24Mbit) from Be (now owned by O2) and I have had occasional months with continuous downloads, and I've never received any warnings.

In my previous house, I was close enough to the exchange (18Mbit), but now, further out (~6Mbit), but I still regularly go over 40GB/month without any problems.

The petition you are clamouring for, on the other hand, is pointless and counterproductive. If ISPs were forced to clearly advertise a hard limit, such that they could tolerate any and all of their customers continuously downloading at that rate, then that limit would be a lot lower than you'd like - as in 1..10GB/month range.

The proper solution is some kind of per-byte rate. A floating per-byte rate dependent on network load would be a pure way of doing it, but would harm most consumers due to the difficulty of predicting the cost. Perhaps a telephony-like model, with different rates for bytes at different times of the day, when different loads are expected on the network, would be another way out. Bear in mind that I'm thinking of a very low peak per-byte rate here, e.g. around 0.00000000125 pounds per byte (~1.34/GB).

This is the only equitable solution: charging bandwidth hogs like us through the nose.

Barry Kelly said...

I just wanted to clarify why it's important that per-byte charges be put in place.

It comes down to incentives. When there's a per-byte rate, different companies can compete to lower that rate, and it will apply to all users. The way it is now, ISPs have a perverse incentive: get customers on the monthly charge, but not actually use the service (since that costs them money). With a per-byte rate, ISPs would have an incentive to increase the amount of traffic used by their customers: and the best way they could ensure that would be by e.g. upgrading lines, to increase the bandwidth available.

As it is now, I'm suffering from being at the end of a bad line far away from an exchange. For as long as I get my internet from the phone line, I'm going to suffer; and you can be sure that BT isn't going to lose sleep over me not being able to download at high rates, not least because I don't get my internet from them (just LLU).