Change is constant. With increased international capacity it was inevitable that ISPs would eventually enter a price war. It was MWEB, a traditionally not-so-forward-thinking ISP, who shot first.
Uncapped internet for a price that didn’t seem insane – Terms and Conditions apply... It didn’t take long (a few minutes actually) before the nerds were frothing at the mouth over what seemed to be overly-burdensome (and in some cases just-plain-stupid) regulations. Rules like “No unattended downloading” being one of them… while in principle most people understood the ethos, the unfortunate reality is that rules shouldn’t be _made_ to be broken… and telling an old granny she can’t go make a cup of tea while her email downloads is simply not intelligent.
The problem is simple. Internet Service Providers have a limited resource and they are selling it on as an unlimited resource… It’s the all-you-can-eat ribs special, only in a digital world, where the limit to how much you can eat is simply a question of how big your hard drive is.
Most of the nerdosphere understood that ISP’s would have to enforce some limitations, and in fact, most ISPs worldwide have some form of Acceptable Usage Policy. The difference being that the kind of numbers that constitute abuse are generally in the range of hundreds of gigabytes/terabytes per month, and then only after consecutive months of “abuse”.
The problem in SA is that the business model is really hard to get right because it revolves around a number of unknowns:
1. What can we offer that’s good enough to a) Attract customers. b) Be called uncapped. c) Not piss off the nerdosphere. ?
2. How many customers can we sell this to?
3. What will the average usage of those customers be? (Ubernerds download a lot more than your Granny)
4. If we scale up operations because of a surge of new customers, how can we be sure those customers will hang around to support the increased running costs?
Additionally, ISPs are obviously terrified to not enter the market because not having an uncapped option will inevitably mean losing pretty much every customer who isn’t living under a rock.
So, possibly with a fair dose of fear and trepidation, a number of other ISPs quickly entered the market with their own offerings, all clambering to try and get that business model right.
Some ISPs even appear to have decided to start selling the product before they figured out what that business model would be. A bold move that cost the likes of Afrihost a fair amount of pain when they realised they needed to implement a soft cap (they call it something else) at 60gb. That 60gb number wasn’t anywhere on their website because it appears to have not existed when they launched… it was only after seeing the real usage numbers that they realised they needed to implement some additional limits. (After downloading 60gb your connection is throttled, and then once you hit 120 it’s throttled further etc etc)
So we come to what is really the crux of this debate. What is uncapped? Currently the uncapped market is unregulated and very unstable. The rules are changing on an almost daily basis and pretty much anyone can offer anything and call it uncapped. Someone could have a product that calls itself “uncapped” but that limits you to 1kbps after the first megabyte. This is not good for consumers.
The market is in need of a lot more transparency or a regulator. There are really only two groups that could play the role of regulator: The Advertising Standards Association and the Internet Service Providers Association. I’m ignoring ICASA for obvious, incompetent and toothless, reasons.
The ASA unfortunately doesn’t have the knowledge to regulate such a highly complex industry and any attempts to do so would probably have very negative effects for all involved.
ISPA on the other hand does have the know-how but hasn’t publicly said anything about the matter. All of the ISPs currently offering Uncapped ADSL are ISPA members. I think the only reasonable solution is for ISPA to get a bunch of its members together and lock them in a room until they can all agree on what the minimum provision for an uncapped account should be. This would need to be measurable limits and not warm-and-fluffy, open to interpretation, language. They may even decide that calling these sorts of accounts “uncapped” is dishonest, perhaps it should just be called something like “Managed Cap 60” etc.
I look forward to the day that we have true uncapped internet in this country and I salute those ISPs who are trying their best to bring us closer to true uncapped internet. They are brave businesses operating in an increasingly brutal space.
Most importantly we need the ISPs to be honest about what they’re selling. If they’re selling something that has graduated throttling (like Afrihost is doing) they need to say so before they take the customers money. Afrihost doesn’t currently say this on their website, but their CEO has published (very bravely and honestly) the planned (and he understandably pointed out that it was plan that might change) approach on the mybroadband forums. I’m sure that this info will make it onto their website as soon as the dust settles.
Publishing the exact structure/behaviour of their uncapped product is a brave move that hopefully will force other ISPs to do the same. It’s only when all ISPs are showing their hands that consumers will be able to make an informed decision.