Jan/Feb 2010 | Volume 2/Number 1
How to Practice Bandwidth Management Under Net Neutrality
With the Federal Communications Commission now drafting
ambitious new rules aimed at "preserving a free and open Internet," smaller cable operators, carriers, ISPs and other service providers may be worrying about how they can manage their broadband traffic effectively and avoid having their networks overwhelmed
by extreme bandwidth use.
But, fear not, bandwidth management is far from dead. In fact, despite the alarm bells set off by the FCC's (News - Alert) recent policy-setting moves, and the separate stumbles of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the bandwidth management concept is very much alive and well. Even though these two initial, high-profile efforts by cable operators to control broadband traffic may have faltered, there are plenty of "fair management" tools at network operators' disposal to discourage abusive network use by bandwidth hogs and reduce overall traffic congestion. So, in light of the FCC' more aggressive Internet policing, just what can network operators do? Based in part on the experiences of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, we have seven specific measures to suggest.
For starters, network operators should establish clear, easy-to-understand policies about monthly subscriber bandwidth use and consumption caps. These policies should plainly spell out what is considered normal usage and what is considered abusive usage. They should also set the bar for abusive use high enough that no more than 5 to 10 percent of existing broadband subscribers in any market would exceed that cap, as Comcast, Charter Communications (News - Alert), Rogers Communications, and several other large MSOs have all begun to do in their respective service regions.
Second, network operators should take pains to explain their traffic management policies clearly to customers and educate them about normal and excessive bandwidth use. Most subscribers don't really know what monthly consumption limits of 100 gigabytes or 250 gigabytes actually mean for their broadband lives. So, to eliminate any confusion, it's incumbent upon operators to tell them in straight-forward language.
This point cannot be overemphasized. Indeed, when they shelved their additional Internet meter billing trials last spring, Time Warner Cable executives conceded that they had to do so because they didn't do a good job of explaining those billing plans to customers, prompting a huge backlash.
At the same time, network operators should let customers know how much bandwidth they're actually using so that they're not caught by surprise when they go over the limit or a big bill arrives in the mail. Among other things, operators can accomplish this by spelling out bandwidth usage on each bill and setting up a special Web portal interface where subscribers can track their usage at any given time during the month. The key, once again, is transparency. In the greater Toronto area, for instance, Rogers Communications (News - Alert) has been taking these kinds of steps for more than a year. As part of its rollout of Internet metered billing, Rogers posts monthly bandwidth usage on each broadband bill, offers a Web-based tool that allows subscribers to track usage at any point, and sends out electronic bulletins to users when they reach 75 percent and 100 percent of their monthly bandwidth allotment. Canada's largest MSO also has used a micro-site to show subscribers how much content they could expect to download before hitting their monthly consumption caps.
Fourth, network operators should view the time when a subscriber exceeds consumption caps more as a "teachable moment" than anything else. Don't move automatically to penalize or "fire" your bandwidth-hogging customer. Instead, use this occasion as an opportunity to re-educate the possibly unsuspecting user about your bandwidth management policies and broadband packages. See what's prompting the heavy use. Try to up-sell or right-size the customer first. Spell out all the options that are available, as well as the consequences for the customer if no change is made.
If the user balks at these different options, or they don't work out for other reasons, you can always take more aggressive actions then. Why choose to throttle back, punish, or fire your customer before it's absolutely necessary to do so? Fifth, network operators should make sure that even the most abusive subscribers don't suddenly get hit with big bills when they go over their bandwidth limits. Avoid sticker shock, and potentially very nasty press, by clearly setting modest ceilings on overage fees, establishing, say, a $25 or $50 monthly cap.That's what Rogers has been doing successfully in Ontario for the past year and a half. The large Canadian MSO caps overage fees at $25 a month for all five of its broadband tiers, no matter how much users may exceed their allotted bandwidth limits. Largely as a result, it hasn't run into huge public outcries when it has had to charge subscribers for going over their limits. Bad press is a particular concern in smaller metro markets, where local newspapers, radio stations, and TV outlets often have wide play and heavy influence. So avoid unnecessary public relations trouble by steering away from those unexpected $500 or $1,000 bills.
Sixth, network operators should set their bandwidth management policies on a local, market-by-market basis. A consumption cap that works in one region with relatively light bandwidth use might not work in another region with much heavier broadband use. It's important to tailor your policies so that you never capture more than 5 percent or so of your customers as abusive users. Seventh, don't set your bandwidth management policies and consumption caps in stone. Rather, let both traffic policies and usage caps evolve over time to meet customers' changing needs. What was considered heavy broadband traffic five years ago would be considered a mere pittance today, thanks in no small part to the explosion in music and video downloads. With similar forces at work today, the same will likely be true five years from now. So be prepared to keep shifting your bandwidth limits higher to reflect the market.
In other words, there's simply no substitute for detailed knowledge of your broadband customers and markets. There's also no substitute for clear, timely communication to your subscribers. And there's no substitute for constantly educating users about their bandwidth usage, your traffic management policies, and their options.
Finally, there's no substitute for careful consideration and patience. Don't assume your excessive broadband users genuinely mean to be bandwidth abusers or can't be turned into profitable customers with a little coaxing. Before you move to fire them, make sure they truly should be fired.
Doug Johnson is vice president of product management for operational support system company Integrated Broadband Services (www.ibbs.com).