There is no spoon – The challenge of unlimited bandwidth in a limited world.

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.

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11 thoughts on “There is no spoon – The challenge of unlimited bandwidth in a limited world.

  1. Nice summary – one would wish that guys like mweb, afrihost, etc. were honest upfront before happily grabbing money from consumers – what would be interesting to see if telkom follows suite and starts offering larger caps on accounts rather than saying it is an “all you can eat”. Remember dotco who lost their battle against telkom a few years back?

  2. Great summary, I think most of the nerdosphere understands it, but it’s the poor person who doesn’t know better that is going to sign long contracts and find themselves stuck.

    There’s a reason Telkom haven’t offered uncapped yet, perhaps they’ve realised that this would come up and are working on something else.

  3. I dunno. Uncapped is exactly what all of these ISPs are selling – unlimited usage. Now that we’ve basically solved the “cap” problem, I’m guessing we’ll start turning to the issue of throttling, which will become the next selling point.

    If there’s anything that ISPA should rule on, it’s the _speeds_ that are considered “broadband”. People love pointing out that 384k (and even 512k) can’t be considered true broadband. Setting rules on minimum linespeeds and excessive use throttling could probably be the most useful thing ISPA does at this point.

    And yes, great article. It’s good to see more level-headed discussion, and less diva whining.

    ~ Wogan

  4. Oh, and talk of stumble upon, Joe and Jacques. How are you old timers šŸ™‚ …guess this isn’t the forum tho’.

  5. Makes for interesting read…but the FAQ still remains how soon with the AUP for ALL ISP and ISP users become law i.e. passed in parliament? I have seen ppl DL between 20-30GB in like 3days since the uncapped as started and its just a matter of time before they are clamped, klapped and nailed…until then…. ENJOY THE RIDE!!!

    The ISPs doing uncapped are “advertising” no throttling but they don’t tell you that the your amount of data you DL is not throttled but it is in fact your speed when you reach a certain about of GB downloaded….

  6. I would even settle for uncapped local bandwidth.

    The local ISPs are forever complaining that their bottleneck is the fiber running to the US and UK, but why is it that local bandwidth is so slow and expensive?

    We have always had a history here of artificially created scarcity, which I can only conclude comes down to the fact that service providers (once they reach a certain size) end up with the type of employees that don’t actually want the burden of supporting more users. So they simply do a poor job to discourage potential customers.

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