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AT&T Broadband Metering Is Shoddy And They Know It

March 24th, 2011 03:01 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

The question of broadband metering is becoming more important by the day. And while there’s much to be discussed regarding the cost of bandwidth, the trends of consumption, the public money involved in the infrastructure, and so on, one basic fact today is this: AT&T wants to put caps on your bandwidth, but they can’t be trusted to measure it correctly. That’s not a situation consumers should take without protest.

Readers over at Broadband Reports are noticing marked differences between AT&T’s measurements and their own. One user found differences of several orders of magnitude. Now, if AT&T (and of course Comcast and others) are unwilling to allow for wiggle room in their GB caps (fees start the byte over 250GB), why should we allow wiggle room in their measurement? After all, we don’t let grocers use poorly (or maliciously) calibrated scales.

If we’re going to be paying by the byte, we need real legal protections against being taken advantage of by companies that have their customers over a barrel. The average AT&T customer would likely recognize if their electricity bill was far more than they expected, and of course at the grocery store, they’d be surprised and concerned to find that a single apple tips the scale at ten pounds. But if they were told that they’d exceeded their bandwidth limit (uncommon today, but bandwidth use is growing as streaming video becomes more accessible), what could they say? Unlike the readers of Broadband Reports, they don’t know how to tell their router to track packets, or set up a software monitor — many would be hard-pressed to access the online meter provided by AT&T.

Without a legally standardized, reliable, and understandable way to track the bandwidth we’re using, we’re completely at the mercy of the telecoms. There are legitimate questions as to how traffic should be tracked. Is it before or after the router? Should it require separate hardware? Will there be exceptions for “promotional” packets, overhead introduced by the service, bits we didn’t request, or wijacking? If the service is down, will we be reimbursed? At what rate, and by whose measurements? These aren’t trifling technicalities or rounding errors. They’re essential regulatory questions that mean the difference between being charged for what you use, and being charged whatever they say. It’s a fundamental conflict of interest that the telecoms are the ones tracking this usage.

How best to proceed isn’t really clear, but here’s what I’m thinking: a few pioneering cities or counties (depending on the jurisdiction required) should implement pilot programs with simple, certified, publicly-developed hardware designed to count bits accurately and report them securely (a big university would love designing this). Work out the kinks with a study of a town or neighborhood, make the device (or integration of one into a router or cable modem, or central cable box) required by law, and with luck others will follow suit. Yeah, it’s rather optimistic, and the money will have to come from somewhere, but it’s not complicated and it is necessary.

AT&T has, predictably, attempted to account for the huge discrepancies by suggesting user error. They’re working tirelessly to ensure accuracy. Yes, but whose accuracy, AT&T? Your accuracy or mine?

[via TechDirt; image: Cobalt on Flickr]

Devin Coldewey (like “cold-away”) is a freelance writer and photographer based in Seattle. His personal website is coldewey.cc, and you can reach him at devin at crunchgear dot com.

Source: AT&T Broadband Metering Is Shoddy And They Know It

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