Lunchtime Musings: Broadband Wall Math


Between a whole slew of recent posts on Techdirt (many linked from this one that appeared yesterday) and this Telephony Online article that I just came across yesterday, I’ve had broadband on the brain of late. [ You don’t have to read all the linked posts, but at least check out the TO article. ]

Now anybody who’s been keeping any eye on my bookmarks and recent posts will already know that I’m a little bitter regarding the amount of money that I have to pay for a pidding little 1.5Mbit/sec downstream “broadband” connection. Reading the TO article linked above, however, just about put me over the edge.

As you’ll know from having already read through the article [you’ve read it now, right?], BellSouth’s Chief Architect Henry Kafka estimated that an average broadband user consumes about 2 gigbytes of data per month, which costs BellSouth about $1. At this point you might want to take a look at BellSouth’s DSL pricing plans…the base price for 1.5Mbit downstream is $32.95/mo and for 3.0Mbit down it’s $37.95.

So if we assume that our hypothetical, average 2GB-consuming user is likely signed up for something around this range, we can say that this guy is paying about $35/mo for something that costs BellSouth $1/mo. Now I’ll happily accept that BellSouth has a lot of other costs to factor in there, but those are still pretty nice numbers to plug into your spreadsheet if you’re BellSouth.

But we’ve opened up another interesting question here: if our average Joe is paying for, say, 1.5Mbit/sec downstream (or a “best effort” at that) and only downloading about 2GB/month, isn’t he actually under-utilizing the bandwidth that he’s getting from BellSouth? I’m glad you asked. Let’s do some quick wall math:

So yes…Joe is using less than one half of one percent of the pipe that (in theory) BellSouth has allocated for him. Now I’ll grant that 24/7 usage at full theoretical capacity would be a ridiculous thing to expect, but these numbers do seem to indicate that an “average” or even a “heavy” broadband user is consuming far, far less bandwidth than an all-you-can-eat contract allows them to.

Next Question: How did we get to this point? And that too is interesting…if you go back to that BellSouth pricing page, you’ll notice that the packages offered are “fast,” “faster,” “even faster,” and “fastest,” rather than “some data,” “lots of data,” “a crapload of data,” and “do you really need that much porn?”

It seems that many bandwidth providers, like consumers, have considered bandwidth almost exclusively as an issue of speed rather than volume. If you equate “internet access” to “viewing Web pages,” then that works well enough: more bandwidth equals faster access to a bunch of relatively small files. Unfortunately for providers, however, that was only the first step; if you can download small things really fast, then downloading big things pretty fast becomes appealing, and downloading really big things becomes tolerable…the issue changes from “how fast” to “how much.”

BellSouth and friends are just now really internalizing the fact that the phrase “you can access the internet at 3 megabits per second” can be accurately restated as “you can download 949 gigabytes of data per month.”

Final Question: So what — where do we go from here? And that one I can’t answer. Maybe all-you-can-eat has to go away. Maybe the price of Internet access in the United States has to go even further up. Maybe we as a nation have to decide that our data infrastructure is critical to our development in coming years and make sure that the backbone companies are actually delivering the infrastructure improvements that we’ve already paid $200,000,000,000 for. Maybe this is why I avoid doing math…it pretty much always ends up upsetting me…