Are All Users Created Equal?

If one person decides to torrent terabytes of movies every month, 24 hours a day, then everybody else suffers. (A BitTorrent user with 10 TCP streams that are 10 times more persistent could be 100 times more contentious than someone browsing the web.)

Yes, the ISPs were stupid to get themselves into this position by selling users “unlimited broadband” that they are unable to deliver. Yes, the wireless broadband suppliers were even more stupid to do the same thing, given that they had even less capacity. But the plain fact is that it can’t be done without building networks that are fifty times the size (so there is no contention) at fifty times the price.

I suspect you don’t really want to pay £750 per month for unlimited broadband. You also wouldn’t like the practical alternative: a metered Internet that works like metered electricity.

In the end, it comes down to a phenomenon known as the Tragedy of the Commons. If the common grazing land is free to use, it’s in each person’s short-term interest to have as many cows as possible. The result is more cows than the commons can support. Over-grazing then destroys the land so nobody can feed any cows at all.

Instead of cows, think of Apple iPhone users in some parts of the US. AT&T has sold them unlimited “grazing rights” but they can’t get a decent internet connection, or their calls are dropped.

This is where we’re heading. Everybody wants unlimited “net neutral” broadband but selfishness makes it impossible. But nobody wants a free-for-all where ISPs can do what they like. Also, nobody wants each ISP’s traffic management to be closely monitored and regulated by government because that’s probably impractical and could lead to Big Brother-style surveillance. In this case, I don’t envy Ofcom. Maybe you can help them out.

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