How does having an ever-present threat of bandwidth cap looming over their heads make the South African internet users feel? Comfortable? Indifferent? Anxious?
Recently, the internet citizenry hailing from South Africa got a scientifically substantiated answer to that question.
In May 2012, Georgia Tech and Microsoft published results of a joint study entitled “You're Capped!” Understanding the Effects of Bandwidth Caps on Broadband Use in the Home.
Since it would have been pointless to conduct the study in those parts of the world that have either uncapped bandwidth or luxuriously high caps, the Georgia Tech investigators directed their searchlight onto the hapless South Africa internet users. Hapless, because in South Africa internet users usually have to do with 1GB to 10GB of home-based internet per month, a fraction of what the capped internet users in, for example, the USA enjoy with their 150GB to 250GB a month limits.
So, how does this low cap make an average South African internet user feel?
Not good at all, says the study. The researches interviewed twelve South African households and concluded that low bandwidth caps put considerable strain on users. Using the findings of the study and empirical observations of internet usage in South Africa, one can put together a list called:
Low bandwidth cap at home is bad because:
It sows confusion among users. Users do not understand the complicated metrics. Most people are not able to determine which applications eat up the bandwidth. They may be aware that streaming videos or downloading songs consumes more data than normal web browsing, but they may not know that the background processes, such as automatic software updates, also count against monthly caps. Then, they may know about the distinction between the “international” and “local” internet quota that many South African providers make, but there’s little they can do about being served international “patches” in otherwise wholly local sites (the “patches” being Facebook or Twitter boxes and Google Ad Sense adverts, to name but a few). Nor is there a way for them to know exactly which of the co.za sites are hosted overseas, thus automatically eating into their all-important “international” bandwidth.
It forces users to make wrong decisions. The Georgia Tech researchers say they were surprised to learn that many of the households they studied chose not to perform regular software updates in order to manage their cap, leaving the system vulnerable to viruses and other kinds of cyber attacks.
It makes users adopt excessive consumption behaviour patterns. The Georgia Tech study found that some people “save” bandwidth all month, and then binge downloading toward the end of their billing period. And without venturing into psychology, one can conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty that binging is not a good thing.
It makes users cheat at work. Although the Georgia Tech study did not delve into this area, but all internet-based South African businesses, like bidorbuy.co.za, are familiar with the pattern of high visit surges during office hours and lower visitor numbers in the evenings and during weekends.
It causes a rift in families. The study points out that having multiple users in a household can add to the strain of bandwidth caps, because it is difficult for family members to keep track of each other's data usage throughout the month. One member, more often than not a teenager, may be consuming much more data than the others, leaving the rest of the household unknowingly limited with internet use.
Many providers world-wide are moving towards usage-based pricing, and the Georgia Tech study was probably undertaken in order to warn the ISPs about the possible problematic behaviour changes among the users as a result of capping. In order to avoid some of the problems, the study urges the ISPs to come up with better tools for monitoring home data usage and to create better alternatives for when these caps run out.
And this is where South African internet users could be better off than the currently uncapped, or the highly-capped ones. They can look forward to better times. After all, how much worse than 1GB to 10GB a month can one go?
The reason to expect more and cheaper bandwidth in South Africa lies in the network of the undersea cables. Some of them are already active; the latest one to open is the WACS cable, officially launched on 11 May 2012. Other should become operational within the next two years.
All of them together surely presage the arrival of bandwidth abundance to the data starved South African internet citizens, bringing enormous social and economic changes to the country. Plus, peace in the households.
2012 South African internet highlights
- On 8 May 2012, the first ever South African scheduled air flight with on-board Wi-Fi took off from Lanseria airport, Johannesburg, on a Mango plane.
- The South African internet user base had grown from 6,8 million in 2010 to 8,5 million at the end of 2011, representing a growth of 25%.
- It is expected that by the end of 2012 the internet user base will surpass the 10-million mark. That means that the internet penetration is approaching 20% of the population.
- The undersea cable capacity to South Africa was 2,69 Terabits per second (Tbps) at the end of 2011, and is set to rise to 11,9Tbps by the end of 2012.
Image (edited): from Many Possibilities