Many UK consumers who have grown used to traffic management and usage limits may have been surprised to hear the UK is not the only place where traffic management goes on. Comcast, a cable broadband provider in the US, has been caught at the game of managing peer to peer traffic, namely BitTorrent, as can be read about over at vnunet.com.
A US resident has filed a law suit claiming Comcast has breached its contract. The case states that the marketing describes the service as "unfettered access to all the internet has to offer".
Comcast is getting attacked from several sides, as the company Vuze who use BitTorrent to distribute content has filed a complaint with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) who are the US equivalent of Ofcom. The complaint takes the point that providers, by blocking or significantly slowing down certain applications, are also blocking legitimate commercial operations.
If the FCC was to rule that all network traffic must be treated equally then it would seem two options are left open, spend more money on the networks to avoid things like latency and packet loss increasing dramatically, and raising the retail prices to cover these costs appropriatly, or only increase capacity as more people sign-up. While the US broadband market is viewed by many people as a place of cheap plentiful connections, this to some extent has been fueled by the amount of network capacity left idle by collapsed firms in the past, the days of plenty may be coming to an end.
So what about the UK? Well we still see providers advertising unlimited products but in the background managing peoples usage, and in some cases this management may slow people down to the extent that they'd be better off signing up to a provider with a clear and simple usage limit. Some parts of the broadband industry want content providers to pay fees to ensure an applications traffic is prioritised which introduces the two tier system oft discussed in the US.
So what of the future? The average amount downloaded per month seems to increase year on year, not by hundreds of GigaBytes but perhaps 1 to 2GB extra each year, which when the average is around 5 to 7GB is a large change. The last few years have seen prices decrease when many non-broadband products have increased by around 3% per year. Allowing for a 3% inflation rate since 2000, a 0.5Mbps broadband connection that cost £45 per month would now cost around £55, but 0.5Mbps connections now start at around £10 to £15 a month. If one was to look around providers price lists you can see that a usage of 150GB which is the maximum possible on a 0.5Mbps connection can be had for around £55.
So we need to be careful in our calls for unlimited to really mean unlimited or either the word and concept will disappear or prices will rise to make it possible again. Laws and regulation may appear to be a solution but rules to ensure average speeds are published in advertising may lead to adverts that simple avoid any facts and sell the product purely on lifestyle which to some extent is already happening in TV advertising for broadband products.