May 18, 2012

Web Data Caps Not Prepared for Pervasive Connectedness

Comcast (Xfinity) made headlines yesterday with its discontinuation of a standard 250 gigabytes a month cap for its residential users, in favor of a new format, which starts at 300 gigabytes a month, with the option to buy more. As a residential customer, I had noticed they stopped tracking our net usage in April, as after continuous growth in our home's Web traffic, the number shockingly (and incorrectly) displayed it was stalled at 56 Gigabytes, following a 162 GB month in March, up about 20 percent from February, and in turn up nearly 40 percent from January.

The main rise in our home for data consumption is two-fold, with my kids' adoption of Netflix and YouTube on our various tablets, and our own use of Google+ hangouts for live video interactions with others on the social network, including extended family and remote friends. As I watched our monthly data consumption increase, it looked like we would be on track to hit Comcast's data cap of 250 Gigabytes somewhere in the second half of the year, barring changes in our behavior or an eventual topping out - and that doesn't include the various megabytes taken down over 3G and 4G from our Android phones and Chromebooks.

Typically, limits imposed on users are indicative of one of two matters - the first being a lack of robustness in the system, which has proven incapable of supporting a change in customer usage, and the second being bad actors within the system, who for whatever reason, consume a dramatically greater amount than the average customer. It's easy to point at illicit file sharing, pornography or piracy as the reason for these caps, but with increased use of cloud computing, high quality video consumption and web communication, including VoIP and video chat, what used to be the exception is threatening to become the new normal. The wonder is if the infrastructure can adapt to consumer needs, or if even more disruption is needed.

The face to face to face video chats of today and near instantaneous downloads of feature films that we take for granted, even in HD, seemed improbable five years ago and impossible 15 years ago. One has to wonder what could be made possible in the next five to 15 years going forward, with advancements in software codecs, fibre outlay and wireless standards. My kids are growing up in a world when they expect any TV show to be accessible on any device whenever they want it, and it's unlikely they'll ever understand the sounds of a dial-up modem, let alone references to floppy disks, analog address books and rotary phones.

Traditional infrastructure providers like Comcast and others who find themselves making incremental changes in a world that seems ripe for significant change and disruption make me feel like they are solving for today's problems without preparing for big changes that are on the way. Even their newest proposal, to start allocations only 20% ahead of previous limits, with warnings to those who hit these new limits, seem short-sighted. The answer, for me, is to prepare for a world with 10 times the bandwidth we have now, when not only every show ever is available to any device at any time, but possibly anything at any quality, anywhere.

If my kids and I, in our casual use, can start to bump up against caps designed to slow down illegal use, just imagine the damage we could do to these artificial caps with a more round the clock schedule and even more devices. Even my thermostat and my scale are connected to the web now. It's time we stopped playing with small percentages and started getting ready for a real Internet of things, or... scratch that... an Internet of every thing.

Disclosures: I work at Google, which is working on Google Fiber in Kansas City, and provides products like Google+ hangouts, YouTube, Android, and Chromebooks, and could be considered a competitor or partner to Comcast and Netlfix.

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