The internet chickens have come home to roost. Finally, the ISP industry has woken up and realised that it’s been selling “a pig in a poke” (as we say in the countryside) – and now it’s being called to task.


The reality about the UK ISP market is starkly simple. The professional side of communications grew up paying thousands of pounds to BT for Kilostream feeds. These were full-speed, full-fat interconnects between anywhere you liked. The price was enormous, and a chap in a suit with a briefcase and a degree came out at 3am to fix any problem that arose. ISPs then charged even more money to buy the onward connectivity into the internet cloud, and everything was fine – except for the cost.

With ADSL, everyone got a slice of the high-speed pie, and domestic internet really took off. At this point, you have to remember some history – the pricing model for UK connectivity was never set on the basis of a workable business model. The “tenner-a-month” conference on Cix was set up by Demon, which was then a software house, to see if a hundred mates would pay a tenner a month for Demon to have a 64K Kilostream feed, on to which it would sit a rack of modems for us to use. Tech support consisted of reading the help files for arcane Unix-derived tools, such as KA9Q.

Today, you can have high-speed broadband for two and tuppence, and it has taken off like wildfire. Unfortunately, the business model is entirely screwed. It only works because most people don’t use it most of the time. If everyone were to download a Vista patch at the same time, not only would the ADSL part of the connection with its 50:1 contention ratios die a horrible death, but the onward connectivity to the internet would be found totally lacking, too. Basically, all the big players are doing the job on the cheap, locked into a mindless price war in which quality of service comes a long way down the list.

Hence the imposition of these “fair use contracts”, which say that if you actually use what you think you have paid for, your ISP will at best throttle your connection. Or, at worst, cut you off. You might have thought you were getting an 8Mb/sec connection, but it turns out to be only half the speed due to a combination of your distance from the exchange and the lack of any sort of meaningful upstream capacity.

Until now, the ISP has had it easy – anyone doing much more than a bit of web browsing and a few emails is clearly involved in peer-to-peer naughtiness, and thus subject to the AUP clampdown. Take the claims on Tiscali’s website: “Approximately 1% of customers use more than 30% of the available bandwidth during peak hours. We don’t believe this is fair to the vast majority of our customers.” Actually, what’s not fair is that Tiscali can’t deliver on its marketed promise to customers, and now it’s being found out.

The problem isn’t peer-to-peer sharing. The big worry is iPlayer from the BBC. Suddenly, there’s a totally legitimate reason for an end user to want lots of bandwidth, and to have it at streaming speeds. And on demand – not waiting a few hours for something to download in the background. Worse still, the ISP can’t claim this is some spotty oik downloading copyrighted material, and thus cut them off in a fit of self-righteous pique. No, this is the BBC, and this is the future. The ISPs have been caught with their trousers firmly down around their ankles.

What has been the reaction of the ISPs? With some honourable exceptions, they say “not fair”. The BBC shouldn’t be in a position to impose new loads on their networks. It’s bad and wrong for the BBC to come along and break their business model. Actually, the reality is the BBC has simply highlighted how broken their model has been all along. If 1% of customers are able to use 30% of the available bandwidth, something is very broken indeed in the way the service is provided and provisioned.

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