Best Effort Still Raises Consumer Hackles

By Gary Kim March 13, 2013

Consumer best effort Internet access can be challenging for a service provider.

For starters, some service providers offering a shared Internet access service on a “best effort” basis will have extreme difficulty providing as much capacity as some users will want, at peak hours, and earning enough return to keep investing, over time.

In other words, there is a business model issue.

That doesn’t mean some service providers sometimes “do dumb things” and under-invest when market conditions call for adding more capacity, or that some service providers arguably might have failed to move aggressively enough to match revenues and operating costs. That’s a business management issue.

And by definition, “best effort” means it is not possible to guarantee bandwidth. On the other hand, this is a business issue, more than a technology issue. Any Internet service provider, given enough resources, can “over-provision” an access network for some customers.

The issue is: “given enough resources.”

In some cases, spectrum availability, financial strength, scale, prevailing market conditions, legacy cost structures or other issues limit the amount of latitude an ISP has to add bandwidth fast enough to avoid major consumer irritation issues.

There is, of course, another way. Business customers can buy service that guarantees a specified level of service – for a price. In fact, U.S. consumers generally have the option of buying a business-grade service.

Such business grade services sometimes will support packet prioritization, though U.S. regulatory policy now forbids anything but “best effort” service for consumer services and accounts.

If regulations are not changed, consumers who want assured levels of service will have to buy business-grade services or ISPs simply will have to make capital investment a priority.

The other issue is “progress.” Some will say an ISP, that meets the advertised “speeds up to” claims more than 80 to 95 percent of the time, is doing pretty well. Others might say that level of performance is unacceptable.

Still, one fundamental problem is that “best effort,” by definition, means it really is impossible to specify the actual level of performance, at all times. Over-provisioning helps. Lower contention ratios help. But “best effort” still means just that.

Perhaps consumers ought to be able to buy access services that offer quality assurance mechanisms that improve experience, even in a “best effort” environment. But that would mean packet prioritization, which the Federal Communications Commission says cannot be offered to a consumer ISP customer.

Edited by Jamie Epstein

Contributing Editor

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