For Boyle's sake, an indecent proposal for ISPs

For Boyle's sake, an indecent proposal for ISPs

Summary: It's been 345 years since physicist Robert Boyle published the experimental results confirming what is now known as Boyle's Law, which to paraphrase is: a gas will spread out to fill any available space.


It's been 345 years since physicist Robert Boyle published the experimental results confirming what is now known as Boyle's Law, which to paraphrase is: a gas will spread out to fill any available space.

I often use this idea to conceptualise the effect of developments in IT. For example, faster CPUs may offer a temporary performance boost, but the extra speed is rapidly consumed as applications expand to fill up the chip.

This came to mind when I recently reread a report by analyst firm Envisional (published last year) that is a scathing indictment of Australians' downloading habits. Australians, the firm found, were downloading 15.6 percent of all pirated TV shows, second only to the UK's 38.4 percent and twice the 7.3 percent in the US. By population, that makes us the world's highest downloaders of TV shows per capita.

Those shows are, of course, being downloaded over broadband connections that are limited to a certain number of gigabytes' worth of downloads every month. Australia's broadband caps are often explained as a necessary evil for containing ISPs' bandwidth costs, but ISPs in other, larger markets seem to be doing just fine without them.

BT's Total Broadband service, for example, provides unlimited downloads for around AU$58) per month with no mention of speed limits. However, less expensive plans impose 8GB and 5GB caps for AU$32 and AU$21 per month, respectively.

The point is: we already know Australia's broadband is expensive by world standards. Given that we are all subject to some sort of broadband cap, I suspect the reason many Australians are downloading so much illegal content is not that they are all incorrigible pirates -- but simply that they want to get their money's worth.

I have heard more than one power downloader saying that the best way to get value from broadband connections is stick to normal everyday usage for the first three weeks of the month -- and then, in the last ten days go open slather and download anything you can think of.

The underlying assumption here is that customers have paid for the bandwidth, and they are bloody well going to use it all.

Sensing latent demand, ISPs have differentiated their plans by expanding download caps with generous off-peak download limits. This lets downloaders shift their BitTorrenting to the hours when it won't interfere with business customers' usage, but it also raises people's expectations as to how much they should be downloading.

Downloaders have responded in kind by consuming more and more media -- setting up massive download queues and watching usage meters religiously to make sure they don't get the 64Kbps kiss of death until the last day of the month.

I can only imagine how many gigabytes of TV shows and pirated movies are being methodically downloaded, burnt to DVD-R and never even watched -- just for the satisfaction of knowing that the entire bandwidth allowance had been used.

It has become an art form for many, and again illustrates my paraphrasing of Boyle's Law: tell downloaders they have 50GB of space to use, and they're going to use it. Every last byte of it.

This observation leads me to an indecent proposal for ISPs - "indecent" because I suspect few would actually risk it. Perhaps the way to get Australians to stop using so much bandwidth -- and, in turn, to keep costs more manageable -- is in fact to remove bandwidth caps altogether.

If we had broadband plans with no limits, I suspect many wouldn't feel a pressing need to use that bandwidth so they didn't feel like they had been ripped off.

With a truly unlimited service, people would just download what they wanted, when they wanted -- without fear of being speed limited or facing astronomical bills for excess usage.

This could only help ISPs, who I suggest would actually see average usage decrease rather than increase. A smart ISP could push down average usage by offering slower, unlimited services and only capping the fastest plans they offer. This would increase the perceived value of lower-cost plans, making them appealing on their own merits rather than just being low-octane versions of the "real thing".

Of course, there will always be people who download obsessively. But by catering to their needs and steadily increasing download allowances, ISPs are perpetuating the cycle, raising costs and doing nobody any real favours. Change is always worth experimenting with -- but who'll be the first to try it out?

Topics: Broadband, Networking, Piracy, Security, Telcos, NBN


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • First mover would hurt most

    The problem is, the first mover would be the one who ends up screwed as all the leachers would move there. ISPs elsewhere try to discourage the leechers, up to and including even forcing them off the service.
  • Content not caps the problem

    I think the problem is more to do with the poor media content we get in Australia. If there was more quality (and up to date) programming on our TVs I don't think so many people would resort to downloading.

    Also we have the highest advertising to content ratio in the world for free-to-air TV. It's very frustrating watching TV when what you are really doing is watching ads.
  • Wild IT anyone?

    Exactly right. In fact, ISPs have tried offering unlimited or near unlimited download models - they have names like Wild IT and Koala. Not models of confidence. Dave, at least do a cursory google to see if there are people who have already tried this before you post.
  • Downloaders heavan

    The problem with this idea is that Boyles law would still exist.

    For every 100 users that only used half their old bandwidth, there'd be 5 that would use 10 or 20 times as much.

    I'm sure there are lots of people out there on cheap plans - out of necessity rather than buying a suitable plan - that would go nust getiing the stuff they want to get, but can't currently afford the plan required to give them the quota to get it.

    It's not surprising that foreign countries have the highest TV and movie downloads, as we are the last to get them. People in the US only download the odd TV episode that they may have missed.
  • But could a well established ISP get away with it?

    Ambitious startups hawking completely new business models are a dime a dozen and usually quickly implode under the own lack of scale (or other reasons) But is their failure a result of their model or simply the lack of users?

    My interest would be to see whether a well-established ISP with solid credentials, network and financials could figure out a way to cut off the consumption spiral -- or whether ever-increasing caps are just going to keep getting bigger and bigger. Mind you, it may be completely unviable. But once 60% of TPG's customers (many of them 'leachers' as mentioned above) are actually downloading 150GB per month I wonder whether the idea might be worth exploring -- perhaps as a 3-month introductory deal to gauge how much data Australians actually use when they're not trying to get their money's worth.
  • The big ISPs abandoned unlimited years ago

    Both Telstra Bigpond and Optus Cable used to have versions of 'unlimited' cable, before withdrawing them 5+ years ago.

    Many ISPs have tried 'unlimited' broadband over the years and despite plenty of interested customers these ISPs aren't here to tell the tale...
  • Horse backwards, cart nowhere to be found.

    Your argument's completely backwards - the people who hit their limit every month aren't downloading more because they can. They're downloading less than they want to because that's all the ISP allows them to. These are the people who drove iiNet and Westnet to remove free WAIX traffic from their plans because the users were doing 300-400Gb/mo of 'free' traffic, which of course is anything but free to the ISP.

    And what was the only thing stopping them downloading more? The physical limitation of how much data you could shove down a 1500/256 connection (~380Gb/mo). It's no coincidence that iiNet dropped WAIX like a hot potato as soon as they released ADSL2+.

    If there was a sustainable way to accomodate leechers and their 'unlimited' downloading, why haven't your well-established ISPs picked up the customer bases of the fledgling ISPs offering unlimited data? Because unlimited data attracts people who want it, and they cost money.

    Quite frankly, anyone who starts their argument with "They do it in <insert other 1st-world country>, why can't we do it here?" is either a blind fool or is trolling for a fight. Which one are you?
  • or apply some psychology...

    Having thought about this off and on for a few years I came up with another solution. If we were allowed to carry an unused portion (say 1/2) of our bandwidth allocation forward to next month/billing period, then the urge to 'use it or lose it' would be gone. Those people on smaller plans would even have incentive to 'save up' their download allocation against the time when that new Linux distro was released (insert whatever your preferred bandwidth consumer is here...) so that they could jump on that early adopter bandwagon.

    The downside for ISPs is added complexity in their billing systems and some customers who may then change to lower plans as they may have large infrequent downloads and can aggregate the download allocation over a longer period.

    In fact this approach starts rewarding good network behaviour rather than merely trying to punish bad behaviour after the fact with AUPs. It also offers a means to allocate bandwidth in shorter increments (say per week) and have people even out the 'end of month splurge' effect too.

    Frankly, till now, ISPs have put little effort into thinking through their offerings. In a world where the marketeers think offering ever more convoluted plans is an achievement, that can hardly be a surprise though.
  • Flat Rate anyone?

    Internode ran "Flat Rate" plans for a number of years.

    The userbase wasn't exactly a cross section of all users (read top heavy with big downloaders) and the plans were consequently withdrawn.

    Flat rate was a fair use scheme based on current network utilisation and your recent downloading history.

    It not as simle as saying "they have this overseas", Australia is a unique market, different to all others.
  • Braue's Flaw

    Braue's Flaw is that Boyle's Law is a constant. One ISP changing to real unlimited is not enough to change a business or useage model. As previously pointed out dedicated leeches kill any single attempt to change the paradigm. To see Braue's sensible proposition work, all ISP's would have to offer unlimited downloads and compete on real differences such as network stability or "God" forbid customer service. Would the download extravaganza slow? Definitly. Half the fun is sharing(showing off) with the plebs less fortunate. Seriously how much bad tv and bad cam movies does any one person really want to watch a month when its all there all the time?
  • Broadband Data Limits

    David I would love to see totally unlimited usage plans at a fixed reasonable cost (eg 1.5mb limited dsl for $59p/m No More ), which is still a shadow on what is available in other countries such as Singapore which for around the same amount you can get a 10mb connection.

    Unfortunately there are three problems. Bandwidth out of australia is expensive, grossly expensive. The whole idea is the carriers (Southern Cross and AJC) only build initially with a small portion of what the cables are able to handle, either by limiting data rate, or by number of wavelengths and thereby have no incentive to charge a reasonable price. Its the old case of the impression of Scarcity leads to a much higher price, fortunately this one may be greatly helped by Pipe Networks Project Runway cable to Guam.

    The Second one is not so easily solved, The Cost within Australia. Whereever you go outside of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide or Perth you are on Telstra's network which is charged at extortionate prices (in comparison to the United States think >pricex10), the ludicrous problem being for example in Tasmania it costs 6x to carry the traffic from Hobart to Melbourne than it does From Melbourne to the US (keeping in mind the Factor #1). Telstra is not purely to blame for this, we have a totally incompetent government whose only thought how much they could get, having no regard to the needs of the country and for its long term future, The Fibre network should have never been sold off, as it is bankrupting the countries long term future. Not only is it expensive, but in many places Telstra are restricting access due to not investing in the Network (eg Leigh Creek South) but instead paying themselves high management fees and leaving the problem for someone else.

    The Third is the monopolistic practices such as doing whatever they can to stop investment by others.. cost of backhaul, cost of connection to customer premises, restricting access of isps to exchanges (eg if you want to install your dslam in an exchange join the queue, and WAIT who knows how many months for access), trying all the spoiling tactics like we have seen on this fttn/fttc debate.

    In order to fix the problems with broadband we need to really overhaul these points. As someone who has been on net for about 13-14years I am disgusted by the issues and restrictions we are under.

    On the Content issue I dont think anyone should be suprised by the number of people downloading programs, not at all. The FTA stations typically wont show a program for in sometimes over a year after its been shown in the US, blind freddy can see that if you do this, then people will take matters into their own hands. You will always get a level of piracy but the degree is totally the consequence of a few players (The Content providers - eg movie studios, and the Broadcasters). You want to fix the problem, quite simple. DVD is released for sale the same day its released at the cinema, and secondly when something is shown at its point of origin (inc tv programs) the broadcasters in each country show the episode within 7 days.. do this and the problem will pretty much solve itself.

    Just my 2c worth

    Thirdly we have the problem with the copper, T
  • Content not caps

    I'm inclined to agree with the up to date aspect. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of the content downloaded, and just how much was movies and TV programs that had been screened 6 months previously in the US or Europe before being shown here (if at all). As long as Aust media try to play safe by only showing guaranteed 'winners', our p2p traffic will continue to be high.
  • Downloading tv shows

    The problem is not that we download so much tv, its that the tv we watch for free ON TV, is crap. The shows we want are in random order, every second week is a repeat. etc, and we are 6-12 months behind the rest of the world.
    People want to watch their show IN ORDER, and when everyone else gets to. Not in 12months time. If tv networks got their acts together, the amount of downloads would decrease. ISPs dont need to change anything. TV networks do.
  • Boyles' Law

    Wasn't this article about Boyles law? If you give people unlimited downloads, they will download limitlessly and in turn make internet expensive for everyone else.
  • Great idea

    ISPs take note - this is an obvious solution.
  • agree

    I completely agree with this - the main reasons i download are:
    1. get to see shows not here
    2. get to see shows early
    3. no ads
  • nope...

    I disagree with this bit:

    With a truly unlimited service, people would just download what they wanted, when they wanted -- without fear of being speed limited or facing astronomical bills for excess usage.

    They wouldnt download what they want they would download everything! At least I would - can always delete what is crap later.
  • Wouldn't it get old after a while though?

    Surely, once the novelty of being able to download *anything* on TV or the silver screen wore off -- probably after a few months -- most people would just settle into a regular pattern of viewing, er, downloading? Years ago I had Foxtel and bought the bundle with World Movies and the other channels -- it was great viewing until I realised there just weren't enough hours in the day. Suspect that for many people, the same would happen with unlimited broadband.
  • That fact didn't make me feel better yesterday

    When I saw a presentation by a technical guy from a carrier in Austria. He was asked by the audience what their ADSL plans were like and answered that they offer plans from 2Mbps and up with completely unlimited downloads -- for 19.99 euro a month. This in a country of 8.1 million people with (I believe) just two major carriers.

    You could have heard a pin drop as the audience sat, stunned. He looked surprised and said, in all seriousness, "why, is it more expensive here?" I need not describe the raucous laughter he got in response.
  • Talk to Simon Hackett about Flaterate...

    Internode tried a plan called Flaterate a while back. Where there was no set limit to what you could download.

    However during times of congestion the people who downloaded the most got hit the hardest and those who didn't got full speed.

    In the end leachers would complain that they couldn't get full speed 24/7 and the light users who would in effect be subsidising the leachers bandwidth bill went to cheaper plans that had small caps because that is all they needed and had a financial incentive to do so.