Many Views on UBB

Michael Geist provides some useful links to opinions about the “Usage-Based Billing” issue, and has just expanded on his own view, as has also Teksavvy’s Rocky Gaudrault.(More here, here, and here.)

My take on all this is that it is not the principle of UBB but rather the specific implementation and lack of transparency that are the problem – and that the objections to UBB per se are misguided and actually harmful because they identify legitimate objections to current billing practices with the ill-founded and selfish demands of a greedy minority.

While I don’t object to paying for what I use (and want to pay less when I use less), I do object to the malign trickery and lack of transparency that is characteristic of most mobile phone billing and would not want to see that carried over to the internet as well. As an extremely low user of mobile connection, I am well served by a prepayment plan where even though the incremental rate is ridiculously high I still accumulate minutes by making a monthly payment of just $10 which I would not see as unfair as a basic connection fee even if I never used the time. At this level the situation is fairly transparent, but for higher volume users the situation is much less transparent and the plans of different carriers seem designed to confound all efforts at comparison and are often changed to the consumers’ detriment after signing people up in a way that clearly indicates an intent to mislead the purchaser. Not only that, but the purchaser of a “plan” with a specified usage cap is often faced with massive charges for excess usage (either by himself or by undisciplined family members) which would have been avoided had there been appropriate warnings provided. Much of the outcry against “Usage Based Billing” on the internet is based on the threat of similar charges cropping up there – and I agree with that concern.

But to identify the issue as UBB per se, rather than what it is, is a serious mistake because it puts one in the position of rejecting what actually makes perfectly good sense.

What we need is a transparent system of charges which remain binding on the provider and which legitimately include:

  • a basic connection maintenance or “system access” fee
  • a charge based on the available bandwidth and quality of the connection, and
  • a charge based on the actual amount of data transferred (which may well vary with time of day to promote load equalization) for which there should be the option of payment in advance – ie with cutoff when payment is exhausted rather than unlimited liability for possibly accidental overage)

Those who argue that paying for bandwidth should entitle one to use that bandwidth for all 750 hours of every month are arguing against the interests of those such as I (along with most people actually) who only need such bandwidth intermittently and do not want to subsidize those with more substantial appetites, and so I will argue vehemently against the anti-UBB position as both greedy and unfair as it is.

But when it comes to dealing with independent ISPs the situation is different. What the infrastructure owners should be required to do is indeed to sell bandwidth to other ISPs at a price that guarantees that bandwidth at all times. It should then be the responsibility of the purchasing ISP to manage the resource (with no penalty for using it as fully as possible). This does not preclude offering the ISPs other alternatives (such as differential rates and/or capped plans with avg < peak bandwidth), but the option to just rent a fixed share of the pipe should always be available in order to ensure the capacity for true competition as service providers.

Ironically, I am actually fully in support of the specific demands of those who have adopted the anti-UBB slogan, but the slogan itself promotes a different and unacceptable position. So once again the “left” is shooting itself in the foot by trying to popularize its issue with a dumb and reactionary slogan.

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