For Boyle's sake, an indecent proposal for ISPs

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?