Does The Cloud have a silver lining?

The Cloud. Quite a ridiculous name for a not so ridiculous concept, storing your ‘things’ out ‘there’, somewhere, readily accessible from any device at any time. No more wanting to show someone a picture and realising its on your laptop and you only have your phone on hand. No more driving to stores and purchasing physical DVDs and CDs, just purchase it in the sky and it will rain its merry way down to you. Soon, owning physical media will seem as old school as having a horse and cart.

In North America one of the biggest success stories of a business utilising this medium is Netflix, which allows customers to pay a monthly subscription for DVD rentals, and more importantly, instant streaming of a large portion of their catalogue straight to your TV or mobile device; no more waiting for Mr Postman to deliver, just sit on the couch, pick a show/movie, and press play.

Thats the idea, anyway, and its a beautiful dream. It should mean not only easier access to your data, but also cheaper devices; NAND Flash memory is expensive, and modern phones and tablets are chock full of the stuff. Take that out of the cost equation, and we should all be happy consumers.

That is, however, if the cost is not simply moved to another link in the chain, bandwidth. Reasonably recently, it all kicked off in Canda, in internet terms that is. At risk of exposing my laughably small understanding of the law, the simple explanation is that the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) passed a law allowing Usage Based Billing (UBB), the net result being that the vast majority of consumers had their bandwidth limited to truly laughably small amounts, in the region of 25GB, with overage charges similar to being hit directly in the face with a sledgehammer, or $5 per GB in actual money. As one infographic showed, it was actually cheaper to purchase a physical hard disk, save the media to it, and post it to the recipient. Considering the internet is supposed to have revolutionised the world by making communication so easy and instantaneous, this was a substantial step backwards. Following a large public outcry, the law was repealed, for now. (It should be noted, the outcry was mostly about the larger ISPs such as Bell using its monopolistic position to force other ISPs to provide the same limited service it already provided its own customers, thus removing any competitive advantage they may have, as opposed to the outcry being about the imposition of caps in general.)

In the US, following this, a significant provider of broadband access, AT&T, announced that henceforth their customers would also have a bandwidth cap. AT&T, however, succeed quite cleverly where Bell failed miserably. They set the cap to 250GB, an amount which appears at first glance to be such a large amount as to mean effectively unlimited bandwidth, and so there was very little public outcry, and the caps still stand.

If recent history has shown us anything, it will only be a matter of time before this trend spreads to the UK. ISPs in the UK have for sometime offered so-called ‘tiered’ plans, which are a sensible approach balancing the provision of access with the desire of the ISP to make a profit. The top tier in these plans is usually ‘unlimited’ although usually qualified with the nebulous small print “according to our Fair Use Policy.” FUP is, in itself, a topic for a whole different discussion.

I would just like to make it clear here that I have no problem with these companies making money, I do not expect them to make internet access available as some sort of charitable gesture, and the basic premise of making money as a business is supply and demand. With limited supply and high demand, price increases, this makes sense. What the ISPs would like us to believe is that bandwidth is somehow limited, and so the increased demand in this modern age is pushing its price up. On the face of it, this seems a valid point, until you consider what bandwidth actually is. Bandwidth is not a physical entity, it is simply a measure of how much data can pass through a certain point. To use an analogy of water passing through a pipe, the ISPs would have us believe that the actual water represents the bandwidth, and so only so much water can pass thorough before the supply is exhausted. This is incorrect. More accurately, bandwidth is represented by the speed which the water passes through the pipe, and the only thing that restricts this is the size of the pipe. Increase the size of the pipe, more can pass through, so higher bandwidth, simple?

This is what makes the ISPs uncomfortable. All we need from them is to build ‘pipes’, nice, big, fast ‘pipes’. Building pipes costs money, but that shouldn’t be a problem for companies which make, literally, billions in profit year on year. The problem is, they want to be so much more, they want to provide the ‘value added’ services, which so often conflict with their remit to provide good quality internet access. If your an ISP and you see huge volumes of Netflix traffic passing through your network, and you also sell cable TV access to these same customers watching Netflix, where is the incentive to provide high quality, high bandwidth, uncapped broadband? We, as consumers, like to think that the corporations are compliant to our will, we have what they want, which is our cash. However, what the ISPs appear to have started to realise is that the paradigm has shifted; they have gone from being a provider of goods which needs customers, to being a provider of goods which customers need, and this turns the whole price mechanism on its head. You only have to look to suppliers of water, gas or electricity to see that when the company runs the show, the customer gets, to be blunt, shafted. Without significant, and more importantly competent, government oversight, the desire for profit would run rampant and the vast majority of consumers would be forced into impossible choices between food and heat.

I am not stating at all that internet access is as important as clean water or heating. I recognise that as a Westerner with all the trappings of this society I am incredibly well off, and many many people over the world suffer without the basics, which can make this complaint over internet access seem rather trite. However, I do maintain that the internet is one of the most significant developments in modern history, with so much as yet unrealised potential, and to let it be crippled by the greed of a few is a travesty.

This was posted 2 years ago. It has 3 notes.