After last year’s kerfuffle over hidden bandwidth caps, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Time Warner is now considering a new per-byte billing model. The model, which will be tested in Beaumont Texas, will charge subscribers who exceed a clearly-published threshold for maximum bandwidth usage.
To me this seems to fall under the category of be careful what you wish for. Consumers shouldn’t be cut off from service for using too much bandwidth if a service is advertised as unlimited. However, for the folks who use a great deal of bandwidth and haven’t been cut off, this new model would almost certainly raise Internet access fees.
What I haven’t seen in the coverage of Time Warner’s billing test is whether there’s a distinction being made for upstream versus downstream traffic. Upstream bandwidth is much less available in most broadband services today, but most traffic (for now) is downstream anyway. DOCSIS 3.0 technologies are also focused on downstream traffic at the moment, which means that capacity increases are going to continue to come on the downstream side in the near future.
So what’s a reasonable downstream bandwidth cap? What’s a reasonable upstream cap? If a cable operator deploys new equipment (like Motorola’s TX32 decoupled, downstream module) to increase downstream capacity by a significant margin, does the equation for a reasonable downstream bandwidth cap change? (Subscribers likely won’t know there’s been an equipment upgrade.) When upstream channel bonding becomes a commercial reality, will upstream bandwidth caps see a lift?
All of these questions are highly speculative for now because broadband-by-the-byte billing systems are still hypothetical. And ultimately the answers probably lie in how much competition broadband providers face in the future. However, it’s an interesting time to start debating these issues, particularly as broadband networks rapidly evolve and consumer appetites for online video escalate. Broadband is becoming a utility. So what’s the model billing system?