Microsoft Study: Bandwidth Caps Change Internet Users' Behavior
May 8, 2012 1:33 PM
There are three main reasons for anxiety related to bandwidth caps: invisible balances, mysterious processes and multiple users
A new Georgia Tech/Microsoft study shows that bandwidth caps are putting unnecessary strain on users in South Africa.
Marshini Chetty, a Microsoft Research intern and postdoctoral researcher from Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing, conducted a study that shows negative user experiences associated with bandwidth caps. However, Chetty believes the pressure put on Internet users could be relieved with the right data usage monitoring tools.
The study, which is titled "'You're Capped!' Understanding the Effects of Bandwidth Caps on Broadband Use in the Home," was conducted in South Africa. Chetty met with 12 households in the country, where caps were universal until February 2010. South African Internet service providers (ISPs) generally range caps up to 9 GB of data monthly, but some plans are as low as only 1 GB of data, which is significantly lower than 150 GB - 250 GB caps in the U.S.
According to Chetty, there are three main reasons for anxiety related to bandwidth caps: invisible balances, mysterious processes and multiple users.
Invisible balances refer to households having to pay extra fees for small bandwidth cap increases. When this method wasn't ideal, some families would visit other family members to use the Internet, or just switch from desktop PCs to smartphones.
Mysterious processes mean the household's inability to identify which programs are consuming the most bandwidth. Videos and downloads
eat up much more of the monthly cap
then Web browsing, but not everyone is aware of this and can be cu off in the middle of their activity because the cap reached full capacity.
Some users would even skip software updates because it ate up too much of the monthly bandwidth cap.
"People's behavior does change when limits are placed on Internet access -- just like we've seen happen in the smartphone market -- and many complain about usage-based billing, but no one has really studied the effects it has on consumer activity," said Chetty. "We would also hear about people 'saving' bandwidth all month and then binge downloading toward the end of their billing period.
"We were surprised to learn that many of the households we studied chose not to perform regular software updates in order to manage their cap. This activity can be benign for some applications, inadvisable for others and downright dangerous in certain cases. For example, not installing security patches on your system can leave you vulnerable to viruses and other sorts of cyber attacks."
Multiple users in a household can also add to the strain of bandwidth caps because not all family members can monitor each other's
data usage throughout the month
. One may be consuming much more data than the other's, leaving the rest of the household unknowingly limited with Internet use.
Chetty has recognized that bandwidth caps can be problematic, and is urging ISPs to come up with better tools that allow households to monitor their data usage and also create better alternatives for when these caps are met.
"As ISPs move toward usage-based pricing, we need to keep in mind the reactive behaviors that consumers adopt and the consequences of those behaviors," said Chetty. "Because when you have broadband caps, you will use the Internet differently.
"So if you're going to have caps, you should empathize with your users and offer ways for customers to see how their data are being used and who is using them."
There appears to be strain associated with mobile bandwidth as well. In January 2012, England-based mobile advisory company Arieso reported that the top 1 percent of heavy users are bandwidth hogs,
accounting for half of the entire world's mobile traffic
"We can't expect users to use common sense. That would eliminate the need for all sorts of legislation, committees, oversight and lawyers." -- Christopher Jennings
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