Sunday, 01 June 2008

Where has all the bandwidth gone?

According to a report released by Akamai (of CDN fame), Washington is the slowest state in the union when it comes to broadband.  More appalling however is the USA's positioning with respect to the rest of the world.  For the country that invented the internet (sorry Al), we are sure a long way behind our European and Asian counterparts, ranking only 24th for greater than 2Mbps broadband penetration.

What is the problem here?  Why are we so far behind?  More troubling, why has the cost of communication services like the internet access gone up year over year with no appreciable increases in either service quality nor speed?  The same cable companies that begged to be released from regulation - citing a free market would increase competition and lower prices have instead consolidated, reduced choice, and increased rates.

Let's take a look at what speeds you typically get from your crappy cable provider.  For an astonishing ~$50/month, you can order from your local cable provider a 6Mbps/768Kbps package.  In some markets, you can order higher speed packages for significantly higher rates.  Of course, in the markets that offer those higher speed tiers you will likely run into a cap:

An MSO talking 100 Mbit/s out of one side of its mouth and usage caps out the other is like a bi-polar buffet restaurateur. They continue adding more entrees to an all-you-can-eat spread, and then reduce the size of the plates and tell diners they only have 10 minutes to chow. It's a recipe for dissatisfaction. The buffet looks bigger and tastier – so the patron's hunger grows – and then they are asked to practice portion control. [source]

Most people I know that have cable (all in fact) use the standard plan because the higher speed plans are so much more expensive.  The plans have to be - if they were cheap people would buy it and then the cable companies could never meet their SLA for their customers.  So, let's deal with the average for now.

The part that gets most people is that those bandwidth numbers provided by the cable companies don't mean much in our every day surfing and downloading.  Quick, how does 768Kbps in upload speed translate to your Bittorrent client on Comcast?[1]  What is the max speed that you will be able to download the latest SP3 for XP on your 6Mbps connection?  Without doing the math, no one really knows - we are talking two different units here.

What most folks are used to seeing is the browser download progress window:

image

This measurement (usually in KB/s) is what most people can identify with to truly understand how fast they can download something.  On a 6Mbps connection, your theoretical max download speed is only 768KB/s.  Of course, no one but no one gets that max speed.  It might burst in some markets for a bit, but with a huge pipe coming down (like Microsoft Download Center), you are lucky if you get 400KB/s max on most cable systems.

An astute reader will notice that I am not using a normal cable provider here in the screen shot.  In fact, at 1.24 MB/s, I am getting roughly 3x faster speeds that 'normal' cable.  This is because after suffering Comcast's incredibly slow and laggy connection long enough, I bit the bullet and ordered FiOS from Verizon.  I chose the 15Mbps/15Mbps package for roughly $70/month.  I am a heavy internet user (both up and down) and so far it has been worth every penny.

Here I am uploading all my MP3 collection to my backup provider (Mozy).  Previously on cable, I never dared doing it because I didn't want to tie up my connection for a few weeks at the measly 40KB/s.  With FiOS, I can do this easily.

image

So what is the problem with the status quo?  Unless hordes of users start to migrate to FiOS, cloud services in general will suffer for years to come.  The value of a cloud service like Mozy is directly proportional to the bandwidth that users can access to get to it.  Today, backing up only 30GB worth of data to cloud storage at 40KB/s would take over 9 days!  It is impractical for most people to leave a machine on for 9 days and especially tie up all the bandwidth in the house for the same period of time.  I know my parents would never do it.

If we look at some of the more interesting cloud services that could be offered, we see again that bandwidth (especially up) constrains the value of the service.  Unfortunately, I don't hold out a lot of hope for things to improve soon.  Certain classes of applications that could go in the cloud will be fine (web sites, some services, and simple download only type services).  While truly interactive, rich media, or game changing devices (imagine the Network PC, but for real now) with be hobbled for years.  We'll see...

What do you think?

[1] Trick question: Comcast blocks Bittorrent, so it is likely 0 KB/s instead of the theoretical 96 KB/s (max 40-50 KB/s in real use).

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