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Op-ed: Broadband Data Limits May Cap More Than Bandwidth

Amid items about new handsets, Sony’s latest debacles and the recent Apple rumors, this week’s launch of AT&T’s broadband data caps got relatively little buzz. The limitation on DSL and U-Verse subscribers (to 150GB and 250GB, respectively) was a small item that got lost among other major stories and breaking news.

But on the tech landscape, this isn’t small news. In fact, it’s just more evidence of a trend that has been taking root, and it’s one that I find pretty disturbing. (Apparently I’m not the only one.)

Let’s face it: Data caps are annoying enough on phones. But at least there, you can understand how a carrier would want to discourage overuse (sorta). On a limited cellular network, maintaining bandwidth for the majority of the subscribers is the priority. And so carriers regularly encouraged users to join Wi-Fi networks instead.

Also promoted were femtocells — devices whose sole purpose is to offer a personal mini cell tower using a home Internet connection, to eradicate that annoying basement dead zone and give it its own coverage. And since then, tablets have come along, both Wi-Fi-only and 3G, not to mention several Internet-enabled home entertainment systems.

All of this has conditioned us to use broadband. A lot. And so far, it has served us fairly well — so much so, that aside from maybe the occasional BitTorrent addict, most everyday subscribers aren’t aware that broadband data limitations even exist. But they do.

And if you didn’t know it before, you may soon find out… the hard way.

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They’re Busting Caps At Us

AT&T isn’t the first provider to cap broadband customers — both Charter and Comcast instituted limits on users. When Comcast first made its announcement, the company attempted to put its 250GB ceiling into context:

  • Send 50 million emails (at 0.05 KB/email)
  • Download 62,500 songs (at 4 MB/song)
  • Download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 GB/movie)
  • Upload 25,000 hi-resolution digital photos (at 10 MB/photo)

Sounds like a lot. And it is. In fact, if we stuck to our current technology, this might be enough for some subscribers. AT&T says it serves as many as 98 percent of its subscribers just fine. And in other countries, 250GB may even seem pretty generous. But, while all this might be true for now, I think things are changing, and fast.

Let’s put the above bullet points into more context: With a 250GB data cap, you can watch 125 standard-def movies at 2GB each. For 4GB HD movies, you’re looking at just under 63 movies. That should still be more than enough for anyone, right? Well, maybe not.

Now imagine a household of four that uses their desktops, mobile devices and maybe a TV device to watch Netflix, Hulu and YouTube HD, along with listening to Slacker, Pandora and other streaming services. Then there are vodcasts and Skype video chats. And hopefully, no one in that family is into World of Warcraft or Portal 2. Suddenly, the allotment doesn’t seem like so much. And no one has even sent any emails yet.

We’re about to see broadband usage balloon even further. There are more streaming services and cloud-based offerings on the way, in a range of different implementations, plus more robust and higher definition content. There are more gamers, as well as games, 3DTVs, Smart televisions, and a myriad of other home appliances and entertainment devices, more of which must connect to the internet to deliver all of their features. (I can’t imagine how hard the future is going to hit AT&T’s DSL subscriberbase, with its 150GB limit.)

In general, I’m a little amazed that there isn’t more of an uprising against these caps already. Maybe it’s because most families aren’t chock full of tech enthusiasts all clamoring for bandwidth. But that too is changing.

Devices are advancing, offering intriguing choices for consumers, and prices are falling ever faster, thanks to the spate of new handset debuts and other technologies. In other words, more households will have these gadgets around, and people will only grow more tech-savvy. That’s both joyous and sad, because by the time that happens, they (read: we) may be cut off at the knees with industry-standard broadband limitations.

Cents & Sensibility

att.jpgThe way things look now, the data load will only grow from this point forward. And yet, so far, three out of the six big cable broadband providers have gone the other way by limiting our access. Time Warner, Verizon, and Cablevision haven’t imposed caps yet, but all three have shown interest in doing so — despite the fact that there’s no economic reason for it. The flat-rate, all-you-can-stream pricing is profitable, says Broadband Reports, and “most ISP costs for providing bandwidth are fixed or dropping.”

So then why are they doing this? I honestly can’t think of anything except greed. After all, many of these operators are dominant or sole providers in the areas they cover. So it’s not like a whole lot of customers can simply pick a competitor.

There’s certainly money to made with this tactic, between overage charges and even upgrades to business class service. And maybe some people can afford that. Others can’t. But as disconcerting as that is — shouldn’t the internet be accessible for all? — there’s another concern: If the evolution of tech brings on more data demands, then could the limitation of broadband actually hinder that innovation?

In other words, why would anyone invest the time and money to develop products when a lot of people won’t be able to use them?

Case in point: I wrote up a post earlier this week about Microsoft’s Home of the Future. In light of this data capping trend, I kept wondering how much bandwidth that would take to run. Would futuristic concepts like Microsoft’s living walls or communications surfaces even reach us if there’s little to no market for them, thanks to these practices?

Maybe we’re not there yet. But it’s not hard to see what’s in front of us. Forget the soon-to-be-future; I’m talking about a time that’s almost here, when bandwidth caps become a status quo that’s hard to undo — and chokes the life out of what could come next before it even gets here.

Let me know if you’re as bothered by this as I am, or if you’ve got an opinion related to this (or even opposed to this). The comments section is below. You know what to do.

 

BONUS SIDEBAR:

I started to look into 4G access, wondering if it might be a viable alternative to traditional home broadband Internet. Bottom line: As fast as it is in comparison to 3G, it’s still not a contender against home broadband, at least via Sprint. LTE speeds hold more promise though, so you if you’re interested in this, you may want to pay extra attention to Verizon’s market rollouts this year. In either case, you won’t save any money though — in fact, you’ll probably spend more on even lower data tiers. But hey, if you hate your broadband provider that much, at least it’s an alternative. For more on this, including speed tests, hit up PCWorld.


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Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...


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