Vint Cerf blasts broadband caps

Father of the internet says broadband providers shouldn't constrict customers with data caps

"Father of the internet" Vint Cerf has attacked ISPs that apply data caps to their broadband packages.

Cerf, writing in his role as Google's chief internet evangelist, criticises the practice of charging users more for every byte of data they use past a certain cap.

Cerf was speaking in the wake of a US ruling that prevented Comcast from blocking access to P2P file-sharing sites and Time Warner's trial of "consumption-based billing". However, his words could equally apply to many of Britain's ISPs, some of which apply data caps as low as 1GB on their cheapest connections.

"At least one proposal has surfaced that would charge users by the byte after a certain amount of data has been transmitted during a given period," Cerf writes on the Google Public Policy blog. "This is a kind of volume cap, which I do not find to be a very useful practice. Given an arbitrary amount of time, one can transfer arbitrarily large amounts of information."

"Some have suggested metered pricing - charging by the megabyte rather than flat fee plans - as a solution to congestion, and prices could be adjusted at non-peak periods," Cerf adds. "These kinds of pricing plans, depending on how they are devised or implemented, could end up creating the wrong incentives for consumers to scale back their use of internet applications over broadband networks."

Instead, Cerf suggests an alternative way for broadband providers to keep bandwidth demands under control. "Rather than a volume cap, I suggest the introduction of transmission rate caps, which would allow users to purchase access to the internet at a given minimum data rate and be free to transfer data at at least up to that rate in any way they wish."

Cerf's suggestion is almost the complete opposite of the way broadband connections are currently sold in Britain, where broadband is offered at speeds of "up to XXMb/sec", although actual speeds are often only a fraction of the stated maximum.

Traffic shaping

The Google evangelist isn't totally opposed to the idea of traffic shaping. "In my view, internet traffic should be managed with an eye towards applications and protocols," Cerf claims.

"For example, a broadband provider should be able to prioritise packets that call for low latency (the period of time it takes for a packet to travel from Point A to Point B), but such prioritisation should be applied across the board to all low-latency traffic, not just particular application providers.

"Broadband carriers should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the market under the rubric of network management."

He also urges broadband providers to avoid a blanket approach to traffic management. "Network management should be narrowly tailored, with bandwidth constraints aimed essentially at times of actual congestion," Cerf proclaims. "In the middle of the night, available capacity may be entirely sufficient, and thus moderating users' traffic may be unnecessary."

Such a policy is already adopted by many British ISPs. PlusNet, for example, yesterday launched a £16.99 per month broadband package with a 1GB cap, but which permitted unlimited downloads between midnight and 8am.

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