Bandwidth limits infuriate customers

As service providers begin testing the viability of bandwidth caps and metered usage, broadband subscribers have become vehemently opposed to such restrictions, according to an IDC survey conducted in August.

Lately, broadband providers and other internet gatekeepers have been exploring new ways to monetize network usage in an effort to reduce maintenance and other expenses.

These experimental strategies include setting hard and soft bandwidth caps, metering access and throttling the bandwidth of heavy users. The survey revealed that 81% of the respondents were opposed to such bandwidth restrictions, however.

The survey results came as a surprise to Matt Davis, director of multiplay research at Framingham, Massachusetts-based IDC, who claims that a majority of the participants were considered low-traffic users. 'To me, what stands out the most from this survey is the heavy consumer resistance to bandwidth caps and metered usage from the low-end users,' he said. 'There seems to be a reluctance from this user base to accept these practices, even though, most likely, the caps would not affect their normal internet experience.'

In fact, 51% of the respondents stated that they would try to change service providers if their broadband provider adopted such policies.

Davis said he believes the staunch resistance from subscribers stems from a perception that many telecommunication vehicles are beginning to transition from a metered approach to an 'all-you-can-eat serving' as he put it, except for the internet.

'Take, for instance, long-distance calling or cell phone plans,' he said. 'You used to be charged by the minute for these services. Now, unlimited packages are becoming standard.' This is in stark contrast to where internet access pricing seems to be heading -- progressing from an unlimited offering to a more restrictive one.

However, Sig Luft, chief technical officer at telecommunications equipment supplier Zeugma Systems Inc., said he believes customer opposition results from a lack of understanding. He points out that the survey showed that 83% of respondents did not know what a gigabyte was or how many they use in a billing cycle. 'It appears that a lot of people simply don't know, so they are afraid that these new guidelines will end up adversely affecting them,' he said. Zeugma provides internet service providers with tools to manage network traffic flows.

Despite the opposition to caps and meters, 94% of participants see the value in broadband providers allocating additional bandwidth to certain types of traffic, such as videoconferencing, VoIP, gaming and telecommuter VPNs. Additionally, another 54% would be willing to change service providers if a different provider offered such premium bandwidth services.

Kevin Walsh, vice president of marketing at Richmond, British Columbia-based Zeugma Systems, found this to be the survey's most startling finding. 'If you listen to people in Washington or certain advocates, you'd believe that customers would be unwilling to pay more for better service,' he said. 'However, this study shows that just isn't the case.'

In the end, Walsh, Luft and Davis all agree that these new practices, if adopted by the big service providers, will have a major impact on how the internet is used. According to Davis, 'This has far greater implications than just scaring peer-to-peer users.' He's afraid that it may put a damper on the casual user's internet experience. 'One thing is for certain,' he said. 'We definitely opened a can of worms.'

Keith Kessinger, Contributor, SearchTelecom