A Case Study in Transparency

One of the overriding themes in the Network Neutrality debate, and what triggered much of the recent activity with Comcast and the FCC, has to do with transparency.  Or in the recent words of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, “Consumers must be completely informed about the exact nature of the service they are purchasing”.  When it comes to transparency about service plans, and the business necessity behind them, I can think of many good examples, but one service provider stands above the rest, an ISP in the UK called PlusNet. In the spirit of transparency, PlusNet is an Arbor customer.

PlusNet offers an array of residential broadband services, called “Broadband Your Way” shown in the following diagram, ranging from a “pay as you go” service for light users – casual users who are typically migrating from a dial service to always-on broadband – to high-end broadband subscribers that enjoy the heavy use of gaming, VoIP, and peer to peer file sharing. PlusNet also has a specific plan for gaming that offers quality broadband with low ping and latency, called “Broadband Your Way PRO.”

Each of the service options has some form of traffic management associated with it, so each plan can appeal to a different demographic: from a light user that does not use file sharing to a heavy user that wants file sharing and streaming 24×7. Rather than have a one-plan-fits-all service, PlusNet offers consumers a plan that fits their service and economic requirements.

What makes PlusNet really interesting is that they clearly explain each of the service options, and even go on to explain that there is no such thing as “unlimited” broadband bandwidth; i.e., the network needs to be managed during peak busy hours to ensure fairness and to deliver real-time and interactive applications with a good quality of experience. PlusNet employs three methods of ensuring fairness on their network during peak busy hours:

1) Traffic Management: For certain plans, maximum bandwidth rates for peer to peer file sharing and other file downloading services are managed during peak busy hours. Each service plan comes with a higher or lower degree of traffic management;

2) Prioritization: For all plans, interactive applications like Web and real-time applications such as VoIP are given priority over non real-time or “background” applications.

3) Changing Human Behavior: For all usage-based plans where there is a monthly Usage Allowance, subscribers are given an economic incentive to use the network during non-busy off-peak hours. Any usage during off-peak hours is considered “free” and does not count against the monthly allowance.

PlusNet fully discloses maximum downstream and upstream bandwidth rates for specific application types, such as peer to peer file sharing, as well as what applications are prioritized, for each service option. Because the need for some form of traffic management is driven by the ISP cost model, PlusNet also discloses how UK ISPs pay for bandwidth in order for their customers to understand the business drivers for employing traffic management techniques during peak hours as well as future plans for capacity planning and traffic management. The consumer continues to be informed about the services they are purchasing.

But explanation details in a service plan are not always enough. “Seeing is believing” as they say, so PlusNet even publishes network traffic graphs depicting how the network is used during peak and off-peak hours, clearly demonstrating  the benefits of their traffic management policies. Winning awards is also a nice way to demonstrate better service too!

 By prioritizing interactive applications like Web and Streaming, PlusNet ensures a great customer experience during peak busy hours, as shown in the graph below for the hours between 8pm and 9pm.

Conversely, by managing peer to peer file sharing during peak hours, in conjunction with encouraging consumers to do file sharing at night (off hours) when it is “free” and not counted against any monthly usage allowance, PlusNet is able to get better utilization of their network bandwidth by time-shifting the bandwidth used for file sharing into the off-peak hours when there is unused capacity on the network. The effects of this are dramatic, as shown in the following graph during the hours 4am to 5am, allowing PlusNet to keep its costs lower by deferring expensive upgrades to bandwidth capacity.

So, regardless where the Network Neutrality debate ends up, one thing is certain: ISPs will be required to inform consumers about the exact nature of the service they are purchasing. ISPs can learn a valuable lesson in transparency by taking a closer look at the PlusNet model.

One Response to “A Case Study in Transparency”

November 07, 2008 at 6:13 pm, Your Future Broadband Will Cost More, for Less - GigaOM said:

[…] As broadband matures, carriers aren’t merely upgrading their networks, they’re also upgrading their pricing plans, the thought being that different service levels offer a more nuanced way to manage traffic and increase sales. For an example of multiple plans in action, check out PlusNet, a UK-based ISP that lists at least four different service plans on its web site. Kurt Dobbins, chief technology officer of IP services with Arbor Networks, a company that sells network management equipment to both AT&T and PlusNet, says this is to be expected in a mature market, especially in light of the FCC’s efforts to ensure transparency when it comes to delivering broadband services. […]

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