Monday, August 8, 2011

Why "Throttling" Won't Help Network Congestion

"AT&T Logo" by girardi
You'd better be sitting down for this: The telcos are screwing us again in the name of helping the consumer.
I know. Hardly seems possible...

Verizon started reducing available bandwidth to customers around the time they got the iPhone, and now AT&T has announced that users with Unlimited plans will also have their bandwidth reduced
".. once their usage in a billing cycle reaches the level that puts them among the top 5 percent of heaviest data users."

The reason both companies give for doing this is to "address network congestion."

Where do I even start?

Bait & Switch:
I don't care what the contract says. Unlimited is Unlimited. Not "Unlimited*"
This is straight up consumer fraud.
If the telcos weren't burying our elected officials in lobbyists, we'd see a huge regulatory backlash over these anti-consumer practices.

Measurement Period:
The determination of who is in the top 5 percent happens over the course of a billing cycle.
Everyone's got a different billing date. Sure, I can be a top user during my billing period that starts on the 1st, but you could be a top user during your billing period that starts on the 2nd.  If they count it that way, then more than the top 5 percent will be marked for throttling. The top 5 percent in about 30 different billing cycles will be affected. So the actual number will be more than 5%. Assuming pretty even distributions, probably only slightly more, but it's still more.

But it's actually more confusing than that:
"These customers can still use unlimited data and their speeds will be restored with the start of the next billing cycle.  Before you are affected, we will provide multiple notices, including a grace period."

But let's skip that and assume they really determine who the top users are on a monthly basis.
If I somehow got a good signal and was able to burn up a ton of bandwidth at the beginning of my cycle, I will get a grace period. During which I'm contributing to network congestion. And I get to go back to my full speed on my billing date. Clogging up the airwaves again.
This only relieves network congestion created by me near the end of my billing cycle. Most of the time it has no effect at all.

Data Volume ≠ Bandwidth ≠ Congestion:
Wireless customers connect through local Cell Sites. I can't find hard numbers but the big carriers operate at least tens of thousands and probably hundreds of thousands of Cell Sites.
Leasing a site, setting up a tower, and connecting it to the Internet is an expensive proposition.
So the carriers don't (or in some cases, can't) add more sites to service an area even when there is overwhelming demand.

But a single person connected wirelessly to the Internet is basically only connecting to one Cell Site at a time. Even if that one person has a device that can connect fast enough to cause network congestion, they can effect people sharing that same Cell Site at the same time.

If I use a fast 4G connection, but only use it during off-peak time, I could use a ton of total bandwidth in a month, but have no adverse impact on the network.
There's much more congestion caused by a lot of people using a little bandwidth at the same time. That's why you can't connect at conferences and events.

As people get and use smart phones, they use more and more wireless bandwidth.  This puts a load on the existing wireless infrastructure during peak times. The solution is for the telcos to put up more sites.
But sites are expensive. In some places there simply aren't locations available for lease. The wireless carriers don't want to spend money upgrading their 3G networks when they've already started work on the 4G networks. Unfortunately, most growth in bandwidth demand is currently happening on the 3G networks.

I suspect that we will see limited improvements even when we get effective 4G wireless, because the current "backhaul" (the connection from the Site to the Internet) for most sites was designed for 3G bandwidth.

So the wireless carriers are experiencing increased demand, but don't want to spend money to expand the network.
Perhaps these new policies are simply a way to discourage a segment of users from using the network at all by making it unpleasant.
They certainly aren't there to help with network congestion.