Bandwidth in the 21st Century

As the Internet has evolved, the one constant has been the typical Internet user.  Typical users used the Internet to browse websites, a relatively low-bandwidth activity.  Even as the capabilities of the average website evolved, bandwidth usage remained relatively low, increasing at a slow rate.

In my own experience, a typical Internet user, accessing the Internet via DSL or cable, only uses a very small portion of the available bandwidth.  Bandwidth is only consumed for the few moments it takes to load a web page, and then usage falls to zero.  The only real difference was the online gamer.  Online gamers use a consistent amount of bandwidth for long periods of time, but the total bandwidth used at any given moment is still relatively low, much lower than the available bandwidth.

Times are changing, however.  In the past few years, peer-to-peer applications such as Napster, BitTorrent, Kazaa, and others have become more mainstream, seeing widespread usage across the Internet.  Peer-to-peer applications are used to distribute files, both legal and illegal, amongst users across the Internet.  Files range in size from small music files to large video files.  Modern applications such as video games and even operating systems have incorporated peer-to-peer technology to facilitate rapid deployment of software patches and updates.

Voice and video applications are also becoming more mainstream.  Software applications such as Joost, Veoh, and Youtube allow video streaming over the Internet to the user’s PC.  Skype allows the user to make phone calls via their computer for little or no cost.  Each of these applications uses bandwidth at a constant rate, vastly different from that of web browsing.

Hardware devices such as the XBox 360, AppleTV, and others are helping to bring streaming Internet video to regular televisions within the home.  The average user is starting to take advantage of these capabilities, consuming larger amounts of bandwidth, for extended periods of time.

The end result of all of this is increased bandwidth within the provider network.  Unfortunately, most providers have based their current network architectures on outdated over-subscription models, expecting users to continue their web-browsing patterns.  As a result, many providers are scrambling to keep up with the increased bandwidth demand.  At the same time, they continue releasing new access packages claiming faster and faster speeds.

Some providers are using questionable practices to ensure the health of their network.  For instance, Comcast is allegedly using packet sniffing techniques to identify BitTorrent traffic.  Once identified, they send a reset command to the local BitTorrent client, effectively severing the connection and canceling any file transfers.  This has caught the attention of the FCC who has released a statement that they will step in if necessary.

Other providers, such as Time Warner, are looking into tiered pricing for Internet access.  Such plans would allow the provider to charge extra for users that exceed a pre-set limit.  In other words, Internet access becomes more than the typical 3/6/9 Mbps access advertised today.  Instead, the high speed access is offset by a total transfer limit.  Hopefully these limits will be both reasonable and clearly defined.  Ultimately, though, it becomes the responsibility of the user to avoid exceeding the limit, similar to that of exceeding the minutes on a cell phone.

Pre-set limits have problems as well, though.  For instance, Windows will check for updates at a regular interval, using Internet bandwidth to do so.  Granted, this is generally a small amount, but it adds up over time.  Another example is PPPoE and DHCP traffic.  Most DSL customers are configured using PPPoE for authentication.  PPPoE sends keep-alive packets to the BRAS to ensure that the connection stays up.  Depending on how the ISP calculates bandwidth usage, these packets will likely be included in the calculation, resulting in “lost” bandwidth.  Likewise, DHCP traffic, used mostly by cable subscribers, will send periodic requests to the DHCP server.  Again, this traffic will likely be included in any bandwidth calculations.

In the end, it seems that substantial changes to the ISP structure are coming, but it is unclear what those changes may be.  Tiered bandwidth usage may be making a comeback, though I suspect that consumers will fight against it.  Advances in transport technology make increasing bandwidth a simple matter of replacing aging hardware.  Of course, replacements cost money.  So, in the end, the cost may fall back on the consumer, whether they like it or not.

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