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Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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September 12, 2008 9:21 AM

If I Ran AT&T...; I'd Be More Careful About Bandwidth Throttling

In the second part of my imagining what I'd do if I ran AT&T; I want to respond to their plans I just learned about in this article to limit the throughput of U-Verse customers "when a customer is using other U-verse services in a manner that requires high bandwidth."

Let's parse through what this really means.

When they say "other U-Verse services" that could be as simple as watching U-Verse TV. So that means they're admitting that the more TV channels your household's watching simultaneously the less bandwidth you may have available to access the Internet.

Now this reality isn't all that surprising given AT&T;'s decision to only lay fiber to the neighborhood rather than all the way to your house, meaning there's a finite amount of bandwidth to work with. And at least AT&T;'s being transparent about the fact they will be throttling.

But then read this: "In order to provide a consistently high-quality video service..." The justification for slowing throughput is to ensure their TV service works well. For most users, TV is still much more important than the Internet, so this may not be a big deal. Until, that is, you look at this through the net neutrality angle. Whether right or wrong, one of the biggest arguments by pro-NN people is that network operators will prioritize their own traffic over that of the public Internet. And here AT&T;'s basically admitting it's the case that their TV service traffic has a higher priority than Internet traffic, regardless of which the consumer thinks is more important.

It gets worse:

"This could occur more often with higher speed Internet access products. It may be necessary, for some AT&T; High Speed Internet users, for AT&T; to set a maximum downstream speed on a customer line to enhance the reliability and consistency of performance."

So now they're saying that the higher the speed broadband service you purchase from them, the less likely you'll be to get the speeds you're paying for. Talk about a disincentive to sign up for faster service! Why would I upgrade from a 2Mbps to a 5Mbps plan if I'm going to have to cap my usage at 3Mbps to not interfere with my TV signal? (These are hypothetical numbers, not specifics on how the system will work.)

In one fell swoop, AT&T; has admitted that their network doesn't have enough capacity, that the more you pay the less you might get, and that they have no problem prioritizing their own traffic over the customer's.

So what would I do if I ran AT&T;?

Well the most obvious but also most complicated and expensive answer is to start laying fiber to every home so that there's sufficient bandwidth to not have these limitations.

But assuming that's off the table for now, let's look at how they might be able to make these plans more consumer friendly, or at least appear to be so.

First off, if bandwidth's going to be scarce customers need an easy way to determine how much is available. Why not develop a widget that shows you in real-time how much bandwidth you have available? It could even tie into an ambient display technology that could glow green when it's all clear, and red when there's a lot of congestion. Only by doing something like this will you avoid customers getting frustrated when they lack bandwidth but don't know why.

Second, find ways to give customers more control. Instead of just assuming that everyone wants high quality TV and restricted broadband, I'd try to give them the option of deprioritizing TV service. If I'm trying to download a big file online and my kids are watching three different HD movies on TV, I may want to knock them down to standard def so I don't have to wait forever to do what I need to do.

Third, offer an option to get bursts of faster speeds when the TVs are turned off. Now what was once a liability could become a strength. It may seem a little silly to make people turn off their TVs to get faster Internet, but that's essentially what they're doing now only instead of just saying more TVs equals slower Internet you could also offer the reverse of fewer TVs meaning faster Internet.

Fourth, push the fact that cable networks don't deliver the speeds they promise consistently. That's the only way I can see this announcement not turning into a debacle for AT&T; in their competition against cablecos. I can already get TV, generally faster Internet (or at least higher advertised speeds), and now telephone service from my cable company. If I find out that AT&T;'s shiny new U-Verse service can't live up to its promises, why wouldn't I stay with or go to the cable company? AT&T;'s only hope is to make sure customers know that just because cablecos advertise higher speeds doesn't mean you'll get those higher speeds, otherwise I don't see why anyone would go with U-Verse after an announcement like this.

Maybe I'm overreacting and this announcement won't have any major impact on AT&T;'s ability to attract customers away from cablecos. Maybe this won't spark the latest skirmish regarding net neutrality. Again, at least AT&T;'s being upfront and honest about what they're doing.

But I know that if I ran AT&T;, things would be done differently. If you ran AT&T;, what would you do? How could you overcome the limitations of your network to deliver the best possible service to your customers?

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