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The Party's Over: The end of The Bandwidth Buffet

Tue, 08/31/2010 - 8:45pm
Brian Santo, Editor-in-Chief

As the consumption of video on broadband accelerates, moving to consumption billing is the only option.

Arguments over consumption billing and network neutrality flared up again this summer. The associative connector of the two issues is their technical underpinning: Consumption billing is based on the ability to measure, meter and/or monitor bits as they flow by. The problem is that those abilities are what worry some advocates of one version of network neutrality.

The summer season began with AT&T stirring things up with an announcement that it was moving toward adopting consumption billing for wireless broadband.

Verizon agitated the waters with a manifesto (co-signed by Google) that outlined a set of network neutrality principles. Though the Verizon proposal was neither solely, nor explicitly about consumption billing, consumption billing was certainly implicit.

Service providers are definitely moving away from onesize-fits-all, said Susie Kim Riley, the chief marketing officer for Tekelec (which earlier this year bought Camiant, which Riley co-founded).

“There’s no disputing we’re moving away from that,” Riley said. “You see that with AT&T, you see that in Europe, and even when you read between the lines with Google and Verizon.”

Network Bandwidth & the User Experience

That’s as true of fixed networks as it is of wireless networks, and to some extent that’s why Time Warner Cable, which experimented with consumption billing last year, endorsed AT&T’s aims. As long as bandwidth remains scarce, service providers will not be able to sustain the all-youcan-eat business model.

As of December 2009, broadband data traffic surpassed voice traffic on global wireless networks for the first time, according to statistics compiled by Ericsson and recently released by the company.

Wireless companies are generally considered to be in greatest need to move to consumption billing, and perhaps they are in the best position to move to that model, given that their subscribers are already used to paying for everything and that they’re not yet explicitly subject to network neutrality rules (the Verizon-Google manifesto explicitly exempts wireless from most network neutrality rules).

Cisco Systems is one of several companies that conducts detailed traffic analyses on networks of all types – on a global basis. It has been finding that 1 percent of global users are consuming 20 percent of global bandwidth, consistent with other findings that a small minority of users are consuming a disproportionate share of network resources.

And if a few users are consuming far more of their share of the bandwidth available, one of the best techniques for managing the situation is to make those people pay extra. Among service providers, that’s thoroughly uncontroversial.

That’s not the case with some members of the public who equate any measure that limits them at the all-they-caneat bandwidth buffet to be a violation of how they believe the Internet is supposed to work. Usage caps, usage limits, paying based on usage – they’ve made that a network neutrality issue.

Consumption billing and network neutrality are tied inextricably with network and traffic management. And by virtue of the common element of metering and monitoring traffic, service providers know those issues are also tied in to quality assurance – both quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE), as well as the promise of personalized and/or customizable services.

Dave Brown is cable solutions marketing manager for worldwide service provider marketing at Cisco Systems. The benefits to metering and measuring traffic are clear, and cable makes use of that capability for a number of innovative services, he reminded.

“With data, you can have a set number of gigabytes a subscriber is allotted, and you can account for that, and you can set different rules. Maybe you can do Turbo Boost – can give the subscriber a temporary increase in bandwidth capacity. And then you can start looking at more sophisticated services.”

There are numerous ways to look at a packet and give it different QoS. In 2006, Shaw Communications offered to assure quality for Vonage calls to any of its customers who opted to pay an extra $10 for the service. Vonage claimed this was a breach of network neutrality rules, and lawsuits resulted.

That was one of cable’s earlier brushes with network neutrality. Several others since then have been bitter, including the imbroglio that resulted when Comcast got caught blocking BitTorrent traffic two years ago, and when Time Warner Cable attempted to introduce consumption billing last year. Those and other experiences seem to be inhibiting other initiatives to offer services dependent on metering and monitoring, including consumption billing.

Jonathon Gordon“North American cable? Some of the bigger Tier 1s are paralyzed by network neutrality. Some of them tried it, and there were repercussions,” noted Jonathon Gordon, Allot Communications’ director of marketing. Allot provides bandwidth management systems based on deep packet inspection (DPI).

“We’re still waiting to see what happens in North America,” Gordon continued. “Most operators have the equipment deployed. Cable and DSL customers in North America are used to all-you-caneat. That seems to me the biggest issue in North America. You don’t see that in Asia; there they have data caps and data usage billing.”

And that’s the thing – the equipment is there, it just has to be used properly, albeit in accordance with practices acceptable to consumers. But with operators largely paralyzed by political concerns, they’re not optimizing their networks as well as they could, even within those political restrictions.

“Every single solitary network is managed, and management requires information,” noted Tom Donnelly, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Sandvine, another bandwidth management firm that makes use of DPI techniques. “The tools to manage and monitor it have not changed. You can get data from the CMTS. Some companies are monitoring only, and there are some that monitor and then signal other systems to make decisions to do something. None of this is new. There are plenty of points of information; the problem is too much raw data.”

A variety of companies are trying to help service providers make sense of the wealth of data. Analysis tools are getting more sophisticated, some employing new methods to model the human visualization system in an effort to “look” at video content as it goes by to determine whether any quality impairment on the network would even be noticed by a viewer.

Once pertinent information is collected and analyzed, it can be referred to a policy server, where a service provider can set rules for network behavior.

Tekelec is one vendor of policy servers. More of its business comes from the wireless side of the industry, but Tekelec gets business from cable, too, giving it a bit of perspective on both. “Today, policy services are hooked to CMTSs, which can count and monitor,” Riley noted. “They offer several ways to track usage. A common way deployed is to have a back-end system using SNMP, and then do a backend analysis, not in real time.

“This is how you can pick out the heavy users,” she continued. “Then you can go to the policy server, and you might decide to throttle those services only on a node when it gets congested. There’s a postprocess, and there are alarms you can set. So today it’s mostly static. You might not catch something as it happens, so you’re not optimizing as much as you could.”

If the top 1 percent of all broadband connections are responsible for 20 percent of all network traffic, “that’s a great case for metering,” said Brown. “Throttling will impact only 1 percent of users. Look at AT&T’s argument – that’s what it is.”

The capability to do more is there already, Riley said. “Ultimately, if cable operators have to optimize their networks, they’re going to have to turn on certain functionalities in the CMTS. These capabilities might not be used because operators fear there may be a performance impact. It may increase loads on the CMTS, but the capability is out there.”

And that’s only for with what’s more or less in place. Gordon said: “So what’s required now is moving to a higher layer to ID a subscriber. In the DSL or cable environment, you can sometimes get away with that. But when you move to wireless, that becomes much more difficult.”

The issue, he said, is tracking multiple use on a single account.

“You may have a PC at home downloading something and be using a smartphone or a netbook – you have two devices but a single operator. That data becomes exponentially more difficult to collect,” Gordon said.

Brown explained that being able to allocate usage to different accounts could be valuable, however. “Say you’re buying a service from a Cox or a Comcast. Wouldn’t it be good to see how much is business usage and how much is personal usage down at the device level? If you’re going through a business gateway, then you know it’s business traffic, but if you’re going to Facebook, you know it’s personal, and you can bill accordingly.” The personal activity gets billed to the private account; the business activity gets billed to the person’s employer’s enterprise account.

“Consumers should be able to control their bandwidth settings, and so they need to understand their usage,” Riley said. “So with tiers of service, you can combine bandwidth and introduce concepts, like usage during busy times will count more heavily, and usage during slower times will count less heavily.”

The key to succeeding in moving to consumption billing is to communicate with customers. They don’t understand what bandwidth is, they don’t understand that the resource is scarce and that a lack of management has repercussions on the quality of their service. And what they really don’t understand is that there are benefits to them, now and down the line.

For instance, Riley said, the benefit to the consumer of consumption billing becomes clearer to them when they understand the bulk of consumers subsidize the heaviest users. When you introduce tiers, the idea is if you want to sign up for broadband but don’t want to subsidize the heavy users, then you get a lower price in exchange for a usage cap you’re unlikely to hit.

“The media portray this as a negative,” she said. “You pay less and get less, but you weren’t using it anyway.”

“Consumers need to have a more realistic understanding of what their networks are capable of,” Donnelly agreed. “If everything seems free and everything seems the same, that can lead to inefficiencies. To the extent that you talk with your customers about what you’re doing by involving them in the process.”

Brown thinks QoS services like the one Shaw tried to introduce could – and should – be reintroduced. “It’s not a violation of network neutrality if I choose to let my provider give a service a priority, guarantee at least 200 kilobits a second and low latency,” he noted.

“Think of family controls,” Brown said. “You can ensure questionable traffic is not getting through to the kids. Say I have a project. I know it’s going to be big. I might want to buy a Turbo Boost. Or you can set time-of-day limits for the kids. Homework time is between 6:00 and 8:00? Then maybe they can’t use it during those hours, or you set it so that they can only see those sites that may be necessary for them to do their homework, like Wikipedia. OK, bad example.”

Riley said: “Ultimately, when we get to this level, we’ll have tiers of service – not just for bandwidth, but also for the experience. Service providers will need to monitor and meter to be able to get back to customers to offer a tier appropriate to what the customer is doing.

“You’ll get customers realizing, ‘Oh! It might be better for me to go to a different tier – it might save me some money. I use more music than video, so maybe I can sign up to a music tier.’”

“If you move in that direction, it’s a virtuous circle,” Donnelly said.

“The benefit is to the consumer, but it also benefits the operator,” Riley explained. “If I can have a meaningful dialog with the consumer, there’s more stickiness to the service. Consumers end up working with their providers to customize their experience.”

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