Monday, July 21, 2008

Why Metered Broadband Is Bad for Microsoft, Google & Us


Here’s a horror scenario for everyone on the content side of the Internet: A consumer comes to a web site to download a movie, work presentation, software update or photos, and just before they commit to the download they pause and wonder: Am I over my usage quota this month? How much will downloading this new HD movie from Netflix on my Xbox cost me?

We’ve all been there before — with cell phones, about a decade ago. Usage-based pricing tiers started out with very limited minutes and lots of overage charges. Competition in the market by innovative operators drove plans fairly quickly to a point where only exorbitant usage resulted in overage charges (and now there are flat-rate plans for those consumers, too).

Unfortunately, the usage-based pricing plans (starting at 5 gigabytes) being considered by AT&T, Time Warner and others will force us all to wonder about the size of our connectivity bill on a monthly basis. Further, the lack of last-mile (the infrastructure that connects the consumer to their Internet service provider) competition will not result in these plans changing in the near future. Today, true competition on the Internet last mile requires new copper or fiber to each consumer — a very costly proposition. Cellular competition, on the other hand, required a less costly (on a relative scale) deployment of cellular towers.

While it is true that the consumer can elect who provides services over their last mile, most of us have very limited choices. As an example, a friend of mine recently moved into a building in downtown San Francisco that had exactly one last-mile provider: AT&T. The 700Mhz wireless spectrum provided a hope for an alternative consumer last-mile option, but that dream quickly faded.

Competition and an aggressive last-mile build have resulted in reasonable usage-based pricing models in Japan. OCN, the carrier operated by NTT Communications, is planning for unlimited download bandwidth usage and a 30-gigabyte limit on daily upload usage capacity. By my estimates, that will be more than adequate for all but the largest consumers of Internet bandwidth and does not invoke any horror scenarios for the large content owners.

In fact, large content owners may help us all avoid usage-based pricing horror scenarios. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every month (assume $10/month/Mbps using 95th percentile on 10Gbps of traffic) with the same Internet service providers buying connectivity to their networks because they want to be connected directly to the consumers via the last mile.

If the Internet service providers start billing on usage-based pricing, it’s inevitable that large content owners will look for new ways to reach the consumer. It seems unlikely that they’ll be willing to pay the service provider for access to their last mile if at the same time the consumer is being motivated not to access their content. Why would Microsoft and Netflix pay Time Warner for connectivity to their cable Internet infrastructure consumers if those same consumers are being billed on usage and worry about their usage quotas before downloading HD movies onto their Xbox?

Like other large businesses, Internet service providers are looking for ways to extract more value from their customers. As a venture capitalist, I understand and appreciate that perspective. Usage-based pricing, however, at least as currently envisioned by the service providers, will not only change consumer behavior but will work against some of their larger customers.