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Traffic Shaping: We did it to ourselves.

By Marc Bissonnette

Feb 20th, 2008, 5:22pm

Okay, so this piece isn't going to make too many people overly happy with me, but I think many of you will at least see the logic of it.

So the trend lately is traffic shaping: That is, when an ISP throttles down the speed of a connection depending on the type of traffic being sent. Most commonly, this is done on P2P connections - So, for example, if you are downloading the latest Fedora ISO over bit torrent, your 400 Kb/Sec connection suddenly drops to 5.3 Kb/Sec. Betcha expected me to use the example of downloading music or a movie, didn't you ? Of course, THAT is one of the reasons traffic shaping was intrododuced, though maybe not for the reasons some might think. I used the example of a perfectly legal large-scale P2P transfer to demostrate that there are perfectly legal and legitimate uses that are getting nailed by this trend, as well as the music and movie downloaders.

It's not about the ethics or the legality - It is simply supply and demand. There is a lot of "demand" for media files - Music and movies. However, there is only so much "supply" of bandwidth.

For example, my ISP has a 100 megabit pipe between Beachburg and Pembroke. From Pembroke, they hook up to Bell and then the rest of the world. This 100 megabit pipe is serving approximately 400 households, about 300 of which have 5 Mb/Sec connections (approimately 75 others use dial-up and the other 25 still haven't heard about the Internet, yet ) If all 300 households were to start downloading a 1 gigabyte file at once, the pipe would be saturated - that is to say, we'd all suffer a speed reduction as the switches try to even out the demand from all the users. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, because my math sucks, but that looks like we'd all drop to about 60Kb/sec.

Fortunately, the chances of all 300 households doing that are next to none: As a matter of fact, many ISPs *depend* on that and thus the term "acceptable over-subscription" - That means that at any given time, you know that only about X percentage of your users are going to be using the service and even at that, only a fraction thereof. In my ISP's case, peak usage of the 100Mb/sec pipe is 28 Mb/sec - More than acceptable (Indeed, I'm quite happy with NRTCO - Not that I have a choice in broadband providers, but it's nice that they *are* a good provider )

So where's the topic I started with ? How did we do it to ourselves ? The above is simply background to help understand: By consumers demanding more and more "unlimited" connections, we have placed more burdens upon the ISPs to keep providing more service without any additional compensation. Before you start screaming that I've "gone over to "The Man"", consider this: If you get paid eighty bucks to work and eight hour day and your boss suddenly tells you that your work day is now twelve hours, but your paycheque is still eighty bucks - you wouldn't be too happy, now would you ?

Now, I *know* some of the complaints to this are going to be like this: " But I *PAID* for *UNLIMITED* service and I *WANT* unlimited service, dammit!". To those people, I have the following statement to make to you:

Grow up.

Seriously: Grow up. If you're a lawyer and going to complain to me about how it's false advertising and the law says this and that about it, I say this to you AND the judge AND the lawmaker: Grow up.

When I was younger, living in Dorval, there was an all-you-can-eat chinese buffet about five blocks from my house. My room mate and I and our next door neighbour started going there. Now, Mike (my room mate) and I could pack back a respectable meal. My neighbour, Chuck, was a dump truck with two legs: He could eat *SIX* heaping plates of food and STILL be hungry. Eventually, we were banned from going there, because the owner said we were making him lose money. Being young snots, we made those same selfish complaints "But you SAID unlimited and I DESERVE unlimited". Of course, none of us DESERVE anything: It's not in the Charter or the Constitution, so we're just shooting hot air. Of course, now that I'm older, I understand that "unlimited" is aimed at "the common man/woman" - I.e. if I can normally eat a plate at $6.95, then unlimited means I can eat two and maybe even three plates once every now and then. But we'd bring friends and new business and it'd all even out. Mike and Chuck and I went there *every* day, though: We really were eating the poor man out of business (Well, Chuck was, Mike and I just added salt to the wounds )

So how does my Chinese buffet story compare to unlimited Internet ? Look, if you want to download the occasional ISO of Ubunto or whatever other large-size media file (without breaking and copyrights, of course...), go for it - that's what the service is there for. It's when that small percentage of you start downloading EVERYTHING you can get your hands on, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, that you start saturating that bandwidth that all the other customers are supposed to use, as well.

Just to cut off the other whiners: The response of "Well, they should increase their backhaul, then, after all, they SAID unlimited" - Guess what, buddy ? That backhaul costs $$money$$ - Who do you think pays for it ?

So now the ISP is faced with a darned-if-you-do and darned-if-you-don't choice: Raise the price for *everyone* to cover the saturators, stop advertising unlimited access or take up traffic shaping.

Why darned if you choose any of them ?

Raise the price for everyone: No one likes paying more. There is a certain segment of every customer base who just will not accept raised prices and will use price as the lowest common denominator between services: Ergo, loss of business.

Stop advertising unlimited access: Well, you lose a bunch of customers who just want the *choice* of unlimited - You also put yourself at a competitive disadvantage to the ISPs who are advertising unlimited. Ergo, loss of business.

Traffic shaping: Now you're dealing with people who expect the full spectrum of speed, but suddenly aren't getting it, depending on the application. Well, you're still going to get people who complain - Legitimately. You will still lose some business - also legitimately. But: It's the least of the three evils: Your price stays the same, you can still say "unlimited", but your speed might drop a bit for the P2P users duting peak times (or all the time, however it's been set up)

Do I *agree* with traffic shaping ? Have I sold my geek soul to the big, corporate interests, once and for all, guaranteeing that I'll get to play nothing but "Pong" in the afterlife ? No, I don't: I, too, believe that if I've paid for 5 megabits per second, then by Ghu, I should be getting that no matter what I'm doing. That being said, though: I also run a business: I have seen and suffered first-hand when a customer takes advantage of either generosity or vague wording, no matter the intent.

So, no one likes a whiner about a problem unless you're offering a solution to the problem and I do indeed have a solution, but I don't think it's going to be super popular:

Pay by the byte.

The irony of this position is that CanadianISP was *founded* specifically so customers would not only have a choice in ISPs, but because there was a misconception that the "only" ISP out there now had caps - I knew that wasn't the case so the site was built and now, literally, a couple of thousand people a day use the site to see what those choices are. BUT: The 'net and media in general are growing at phenominal rates: Websites are getting bigger; Movies are getting bigger; Games are getting bigger: This means a *critical* need for more bandwidth is here, now and will be getting more urgent as time goes on. However, for an ISP to stay competitive, it means that they *cannot* let a minority of their users suck up their resources at the expence of the majority of their customer base. If I'm paying $40.00 a month for my five megs a second, but downloading three terrabytes each month, I am an actual *liability* to my ISP.

Don't forget that, people - This is why I don't have a lot of pity for the whiners who cry that "unlimited is supposed to be unlimited" - Remember: As a *customer* you are supposed to be a *source of profit* to the ISP. I'm not revealing any state secrets by saying this, folks: It's common sense: Your ISP isn't connecting you to the Internet out of the goodness of their hearts: They're doing it to pay their bills, set aside for their retirement, buy their kids some nice toys and build a nest egg. Don't get me wrong: A *smart* ISP will get all this by giving you the service you pay for, prompt and polite service over the phone, etc, but they're doing it for the *profit* you represent each month (Which, by the way, is usually less than five bucks). When you become a *COST* to the ISP - Just how far do you think they're going to bend over backwards for you ? If instead of *making* the ISP a measly five bucks per month, you are *costing* them fifteen bucks in upstream bandwidth - Why on Earth should they be giving you *even more* when do so so means it costs them *even more* ?

So, in a nutshell, my suggestion to get rid of traffic shaping is the following:

Offer your connectivity at whatever your price is per month - Include the lowest average of monthly gigabytes in transfer - Nowadays, that's probably around 10 gigs for the average user.

After than ten gigs, charge a *reasonable* fee per gigabyte over that. By *reasonable*, I mean actually sit down with the calculator, figure out what your cost per gig is, add a respectable profit (I mean 20-40% - not 3000 - 9000 percent <*cough*Sympatico*cough*> and charge for the overage. Make it so that a user will pay an overage use, but they're not going to be getting monthly bills in the hundreds of dollars.

Now, of course, this means educating the public, first: It means that "unlimited" is *not* a good thing because there will *always* be a minority of people who *consistantly* abuse this, making it an untenable service offering.

The first step would be for an ISP to offer something like this:

"5 megabits/sec, 20 gigs per month, $39.95, $0.50 per gig over 20" - or something like that.

Remember *most* users don't go over 10 gigs a month.

Okay, I'm done. I've been meaning to get this off my chest since December.

Let the flames begin

Marc Bissonnette is the proprietor of CanadianISP, Canadas' largest Internet Service Provider search and comparison site.

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