ISP traffic management can be a controversial subject. On the one hand, it can mean your ISP ensuring your online gaming session or VoIP call go without a hitch. On the other, it could mean deliberately squashing your Skype call to try and get you to upgrade to the ISP’s own VoIP service. Like I said, controversial.
PlusNet thinks broadband users should be thinking hard about traffic management though – in a positive sense. “Traffic management has been a dirty phrase in the internet industry,” says Neil Armstrong, PlusNet’s products director.
“People have actively avoided ISPs with it. We’ve been almost the lone voice, because most ISPs deny they do it. We think consumers should be looking for it. People mistake it for a moral judgement about how you’re using your broadband line, but it’s really about identifying what’s important to you.”
PlusNet has just launched its new broadband internet service, which is called Broadband Your Way. The idea is flexibility, so you can tweak the service by price, usage allowance, traffic priority and hardware requirements, although there are four core options – £9.99 a month for 1GB usage, then £14.99 (8GB), £19.99 (20GB) and £29.99 (40GB).
You pay 75p (pre-pay) or £1 (post-pay) for every extra GB you use, but between midnight and 8am, usage is free, with the idea being that users can download as much as they want overnight, when the network is fairly quiet. “It’s about customers making an informed choice about what sort of company they want to buy broadband from,” says Armstrong. “No nasty small print, hidden fair-usage policies or marketing guff.”
He’s also got strong views on the changing broadband market, and particularly the strain being put on the network by users. Whereas a year ago most ISPs only had a small number of bandwidth-hogging consumers, now it’s different.
“Everybody’s now online a lot longer than they used to be, and they’re using routers with more PCs in the house, and probably a games console plugged in as well,” he says. “Meanwhile, everybody’s heard of eBay, YouTube and MySpace, so those sites are driving more and more bandwidth requirements.”
Isn’t it tough trying to attract users with promises of bandwidth management and flexible tariffs, rather than pure price? Much of the noise around broadband in the last year has come from ‘free’ broadband services from the likes of Carphone Warehouse and Sky. Although there are ongoing teething problems with many of the free services, are internet users ready to plough through more complicated metrics to decide which ISP to go with?
“Most people out there are smart enough to recognise that there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” says Armstrong. “Someone has to pay for it, whether you’re paying too much for your phone calls, or getting suckered into a TV service that you don’t watch. We want to be the ISP of choice for people who value their broadband, which is why we’ve picked up 200,000 broadband subscribers entirely through word-of-mouth referral.”
Selling broadband priced according to usage is interesting though. I blog about consumer technology, yet I’m not quite sure how many GB I go through in a month, and how they’re divided up between online gaming, Skype, downloads and general web surfing. How are general consumers supposed to know which PlusNet tariff to go for?
Armstrong admits that’s difficult, although it’s one of the advantages of getting new customers via word-of-mouth – often, they’ll come to PlusNet via someone who can tell them which package to go for.
The overnight downloads aspect to Broadband Your Way is interesting too. Are many people set up to schedule their downloads for the wee hours? “We think that right now, 10-20% of our customers are savvy enough to schedule their downloads for overnight so they don’t go over their usage allowance,” says Armstrong.
He thinks that ultimately, broadband customers will end up with a router and set-top box in their home, through which all their music and movies will come – with flexible pricing depending on whether you need instant gratification or not. Citing video-on-demand as an example, you might pay £3 to watch a movie right now, but £1 if you’re happy to watch it tomorrow, so it can be downloaded overnight.
Won’t this depend on set-top boxes having the software to make that flexibility possible? And also for it to be included in more applications – for example one in iTunes to put off your song or video downloads until after midnight?
“There’s already software you can buy to schedule, and we’re developing some ourselves,” says Armstrong. “You can already go and select certain network profiles that might, for example, block or restrict P2P downloads at peak time, then cue them up to download overnight. So we’ll slow it down for you during the day, then remove that restriction once it gets past midnight.”
With PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii all being connected consoles, gaming is becoming a more important driver for broadband. But most gamers still don’t think that hard about which ISP to get their broadband from. Will that change?
“Every ISP claims to be the best for gaming, and it’s a very difficult claim to make, because there’s plenty of savvy gamers out there on newsgroups and forums who can tell exactly who the best ISPs are,” says Armstrong.
“As the UK network gets more and more full, ISPs who don’t have a really good traffic management system that can properly recognise gaming traffic and tag it appropriately will find it’s just going to slow down and clog up in peak-time. People pay a fantastic amount of money for a PS3 or a top-of-the-line gaming PC, yet if they go with a free broadband account, they’re going to be wasting the money they’ve spent on their gaming device.”
Gaming’s been a big increase in PlusNet’s traffic in the last couple of years, particularly since the launch of Xbox 360 (PS3 and Wii haven’t made a big impact yet). File-sharing continues to be big too, especially via services like BitTorrent.
“The free-for-all still hasn’t finished,” says Armstrong. “There’s a huge amount of music and movies out there, and until that dries up – which I don’t think it ever will – people are going to go out there and fill their boots. By prioritising our network at peak times, we’re encouraging people to download overnight.”
The other big driver of broadband traffic is what Armstrong calls ‘The YouTube Effect’, which kicked in around October and November last year. “It’s like the point eight years ago when suddenly everyone had heard of Hotmail, or three years ago when eBay took off,” he says. “Towards the end of last year, everyone had suddenly heard of YouTube, and the general usage of streaming video and music over the web is growing exponentially.”