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How to beat the cap wrap

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Time Warner is getting a lesson in “squeaky wheel” politics. The lesson usually starts when a company or politician commits the heinous crime of upsetting a small group that happens to be very vocal and/or has good connections.

Time Warner’s particular lesson started when it decided to run a test of metered bandwidth services in Texas. That set in motion the usual crowd you’d expect who jumped on the test as a threat to network neutrality, an attack on common decency and perhaps even a little bit fascist. The real misstep for the second largest U.S. MSO, however, was daring to expand the testing to Rochester, NY. That move got Congressman Eric Massa (D.-NY) involved and generated a lot more mainstream media attention. Massa released a statement that paints a scenario whereby one might assume middle class families will be forced to beg in the streets for additional funding to pay for bandwidth. Consumers also squawked about the plan with multiple web sites and public protests railing that such tiered pricing plans are harmful to the most vulnerable such as the deaf who rely on video chat to sign with friends.

Time Warner responded by backing down and calling off its plan to test metered bandwidth in Rochester. One could assume that the squeaky wheel got its grease in this situation since the company continues to meter bandwidth in Texas. One also could assume that this was a bad move on the part of Time Warner.

Instead of back off, the company should have looked north to Rogers Communications for a textbook example of how to implement bit caps while not looking like a bunch of ogres. Perhaps it’s the Canadian air that makes consumers more docile, but Rogers successfully implemented caps of 2 GB per month on basic users without so much as a single public protest or threat to do bodily harm to executives.

How did Rogers do it? First, they didn’t simply spring the idea on consumers without warning. They proactively started talking about tiered pricing/bandwidth caps/metered bandwidth months before actually implementing the plan. Second and perhaps most important, they gave users tools to actually see how much bandwidth they were using and how any limitation would impact their bills.

Both moves helped educate the 90%+ of the consumer base that would be unaffected by a cap. It also helped blunt the small but vocal minority of users, the squeaky wheels, that can cause much ado about not much ado.

Bandwidth caps and metered services are not inherently evil. From a service provider perspective in fact, it’s hard to argue against the concept given that providing ever increasing bandwidth forces operators to incur cost. One also could argue that by metering bandwidth, the incentive for increasing usage than also falls to the provider, but that’s a topic for another day. Virtually every other product or service consumers purchase is metered in some way. In Massa’s statement he points to Internet access is being “as essential to our economy as water is to our survival.” Is water not metered?

The crux of this argument needs to change not from whether putting caps on is fair, but at what point do caps come into play. In a Yankee Group report last year, we pointed to several key elements that needed to be in play for broadband service providers to successful implement bandwidth caps. Beyond the above mentioned education of the consumer, we point to these three key steps as well:

  • Implement bit caps that only impact the very top percentage of users. Although this group will be vocal in its opposition, impacting the heaviest users of capacity is defensible in virtually any forum.
  • Encourage hogs to modify behavior. Service providers should implement policies that encourage the heaviest users to run bandwidth gobbling applications during nonpeak hours when capacity is available and those apps are unlikely to impact the mass users’ experiences.
  • Be flexible. Bit caps can’t be implemented and forget. Think of them as living being that must be monitored and adjusted as conditions change.

By taking the time to educate consumers and working with the largest users of bandwidth, service providers can implement reasonable caps and not be portrayed as network overlords looking to punishing users.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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