Shoving the broadband genie back in the bottle

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with service providers — and some key vendors that serve the, such as DPI and policy server providers — about the explosion in data services, particularly mobile services, and the fickle yet demanding nature of customer expectations.

In the U.S. in particular, operators have been very aggressive in launching unlimited data plans while also competing to keep costs low. Which is great for their customers until either 1) they have to later (or clandestinely) institute caps to restrict usage or 2) start raising prices.

Once you’ve let customers taste all-you-can-eat broadband, it’s hard to get that genie back in the bottle (or that YouTube video back up their downstream pipe).

I was reminded of this yet again today reading this pithily titled blog post over at 9 Ways ISPs Screw You Over. Ouch.

While we’re all looking to shrink all our bills in this rough economy, it’s hard to argue that ISP bills are wildly out of whack. I recently redid by monthly DSL bill, and between working from home, two kids and a Bejeweled Blitz-courtesy-of-Facebook-addicted wife, I’m certainly getting more than my money’s worth.

But there remains an essential notion out there that service providers are raking customers over the coals — and even worse, every new business approach or service direction is nothing more than another step in that direction.

Consider a few of the nine ways ISPs are apparently screwing their customers over:

  • Bandwidth-throttling - Yes, there have been some messy moments (see the FCC pulling Comcast’s hand from the cookie jar), but even in that situation it’s fair to argue the problem was one of disclosure more than nefarious aims.
  • Targeted advertising — What’s funniest about this claim is the graphic example they use at BillShrink is actually Google search results, which of course is the biggest “targeter” there is. For some reason, their billion dollar targeting business gets a pass while telco attempts to toe-dip in targeted ads raises warning signals.
  • Deep Packet Inspection - Much like bandwidth-throttling, just mentioning DPI sends privacy activists into a tizzy. In practice, it’s a (non)-issue of scale — ISPs tend to use DPI in an aggregate manner, not to read your latest email message.
  • Sneaky fees - I’ll admit the fee game in the telecom business can be cagey — again, the examples they give are more regulatory irregularities than ponzi schemes, but no one likes close-reading their telephone bill

What’s this all mean? ISPs already have a mixed reputation. Mobile operators aren’t any better — and with SMS and other sticker-shock bills, are probably even a bit less revered.

Add to it situations like AT&T and the iPhone, where users are up in arms over network performance while competitors (Verizon) gleefully proclaim network shortcomings, and you’ve got a perception problem on your hands.

That problem will only get more pronounced if carriers — particularly mobile operators — promise the world and then either can’t deliver or have to roll-back what they’ve already offered because the network, or the economic model, just doesn’t make hold up.

I’ve mentioned several times I picked up a Droid last week, and am a happy Verizon Wireless network user. I don’t see around watching YouTube on the thing, but I put it through its paces.

If Verizon were to come back and say — you can’t use it as your accustomed, or we need to charge you more for that luxury — I certainly wouldn’t be happy.

For me, that genie’s well out of its bottle.

I think it’s that way for most broadband users as well.

For service providers, good luck shoving it back in.

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