Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Download Limits: a Dinosaur in Modern Times

Age of Conan is having a new offer for new players. Everyone can now try out their game from level 1 to level 20 for free! There are a few small limitations attached but its a nice way to try out the game. Except for one problem... The client is 20 gb and I have a 25 gb download limit per month.

Today it hit the newslines again: "Belgian download limits are enforcing Telenets and Belgacoms duopoly". Belgium is one of the only countries in West Europe that has to deal with limits. Our Northern neighbors, the Netherlands get unlimited Internet for a fraction of our price. The Internet market over here is divided between two major isps, Belgacom and Telenet. Both players are currently having the majority of Belgian digital television, Internet, telephony and mobile phone networks under their control. And they're both having similar limits and price ranges.

How did this happen? Twelve years ago we decided to get an Internet connection. Back then there was a 10 gb limit a month. And back then I had a pc with a 3 gb harddisk. It was a time where the only real traffic that happened was in downloading mp3s. That limit seemed more then enough back then. All I wanted to do back then was surf a bit and download a few mp3s.

Flash forward to 2009. My harddisk size followed Moores law grew from 3 gb to 2 tb (x666). And the limits? They went from 10 gb to 25 gb (x2.5). But mp3s aren't the only thing to download anymore. Plenty of online services have popped up. You can still download mp3s but you can now also buy games through online platforms such as steam, gog.com or impulse. Movie rentals over the Internet are also gaining momentum. The US already has services such as Hulu to distribute movies and TV series. And in Belgium?

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the only digital television services we have over here come from either Belgacom or Telenet depending on which provider you have. I can watch movies through Telenets portal and those "downloads" don't count toward my monthly limit. Of course other players want to enter this market. Microsoft wants to offer Zulu for their Xbox 360 system. One HD movie would be around 14 gb. A quick calculation shows us that the average Belgian will be able to see zero or one HD movies each month (most "regular Internet packages" have a 1 à 4 gb limit). It's impossible to compete because of these limits.

So our minister has decided to start an investigation. It's not the first one so I'm doubtful that it will change anything this time. Worse, half the shares of Belgacom are owned by... the Belgian state. Our own government which has to make sure everything is played by the rules has nothing to gain by removing these data limits. In contrary, removing them would mean that an investment is needed in the cables that run to our homes to provide more bandwidth. It would mean that there is more competition in the movie rentals and thus less profit for Belgacom. In short, I can only see changes happening if it comes from a higher instance such as the European Union. I doubt if even Microsoft can force these behemoths to change.

In the past these Internet providers would often respond to criticism by saying that only pirates need unlimited Internet access. To me it's obvious however that these limits have completely different reasons. For starters it makes sure that no competition can start their own heavy bandwith services such as movie rentals. It also makes sure that they don't need to invest in their infrastructure. And these limits are the only reason that there are different internet packages. They're all the same except that for €15 extra a month you get another 10 gigabytes of download limit. Pure theft if you ask me.

It's sad to see we still have these ancient limits. Now and then a revolutionary new idea gets out. Online gaming portals such as steam see daylight. Movie rentals such as Hulu are launched. And we can even see streamed gaming in the future. Streamed gaming is a concept where all a games processing is done on servers and sent as images to client PCs. Sounded great when I read it but I immediately thought of it as impossible unless if Belgacom and Telenet offer their own ripoff services. Which would give them another monopoly...

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