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Unmetered Broadband - is the clock ticking?
Monday 06 May 2002 18:49:00 by Andrew Ferguson

Are we in the golden age of broadband at present? In the future will ISP's have to introduce various bandwidth options to their products in an attempt to pay for bandwidth. Why is this a worry? Well one of the reasons ADSL is cheap in the UK and other countries is that the bandwidth from the local exchange is contended which helps to reduce prices, i.e. BT populate a 10Mbps pipe with up to 1000 users, which spreads the cost out nicely. The problem is it only takes 20 users using their full bandwidth 24/7 to start introducing contention on this pipe, in other words to keep the current status quo means a degree of fair use may be required.

This situation is different to ISP's kicking users off for being online too long. With ADSL, staying connected does not mean you consume bandwidth, it's down to what you use your connection for when you are connected. What's happening now is that people are forgetting the service is contended and often assume that they should get 500kbps all the time, as ISP's acquire more users and exchanges fill up, it's going to be less likely to get 500kbps at peak times. All this means that we are heading towards times with peak hours and having to adjust expectations accordingly.

This all sounds very nice but where does metered broadband come in? Well if ISP's are overwhelmed by complaints from users about low speeds e.g. 200-300kbps at peak times, an ISP may feel that the only way it can ensure users get full bandwidth when they want it is to lower the contention ratio - now this costs money since more Home Gateways would be required and the rent for a 155Mbps pipe is £40,000 per year, plus the ISP may need to buy in more upstream bandwidth.

The problem here is that the ISP doesn't control the 50:1 contention at the exchange - BT has said in the past that if ISP's indicate that this ratio isnt working they will review it and lower the contention to say 25:1, i.e. only put 500 users on each 10Mbps pipe. This also means ISP's may need to check that their Home Gateways aren't contending users further to generate more revenue.

So why might metering be the answer? Well a reasonable download level of 2GB/day would mean that the vast majority of users would be unaffected, and those who want near leased line usage levels could pay a small surcharge of perhaps £5 per month. Limits would have to averaged out over some period to allow for the odd occasional blip and so users do not need to watch the clock continually. The first ISP to introduce such measures on a large scale isn't going to popular, but then it may attract users who've previously had problems with over crowded ISP's. The trick will be finding limits and charges that aren't too restrictive.

Of course if broadband really takes off, and more and more dialup users join up (which is starting to happen), it may be that enough people are only using small amounts of bandwidth (checking email and the odd bit of browsing) that the 50:1 ratio continues to work. But if events like Big Brother 3 mean 50% of users are trying to view 200kbps streaming video at the same time, then 50:1 simply will not work. It's all down to usage patterns, something that ISP's generally keep close their chest.

Lets hope the status quo can continue, with users enjoying fast connections as and when they need them.

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