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Why the fury at home broadband providers?

By sasha in Op-Ed
Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 04:16:27 AM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

I've heard nothing but lamentations of Cable/DSL providers such as @Home for their bandwidth restrictions (such as the 128kbit upstream bandwidth cap for customers). This is obviously a topic of much fiery passion in the net community, and hence I feel that the reasons behind it should really be examined. It may offer a new perspective.

I have heard this story far too many times, over and over. Angry, disgruntled customers of cable Internet service complaining viciously and intensely over the bandwidth restrictions which their ISP has instituted upon them, limiting their upstream bandwidth to practically non-existent levels, or introducing other usage restrictions. In fact, it's not surprising that a good majority of DSL customers come from the disgruntled ranks of former cable customers. Sometimes twice the money and half the bandwidth, but DSL is real bandwidth you can use.

So, why? Most people seem to overlook the pricing structure of today's Internet. For instance, the Internet, at least in US/Canada, has always been marketed on a flat rate basis. Ever since the days of $150k/year host connections to ARPANet, the Internet has preserved a firmly cemented tradition of flat rate pricing. This is just another manifestation of the all-you-can-eat marketing gimmick, which has proven quite effective with emerging technologies when combined with the ferocious persistence of the typical Internet user on a good bargain. Almost no Internet user today would tolerate being billed by connection time, data transferred, etc., and attempts to do this have largely failed (with the exception of things such as AOL). So we have a flat marketing paradigm in which everyone pretty much insists on unlimited Internet usage for a flat connection fee per month.

But where do Internet Service Providers get their connections? From backbone providers running huge transcontinental data trunks - your friends like UUNet and BBN, which have essentially been around since the divine beginnings. And do you think THEY charge ISPs a flat rate per month? Oh no! They charge by units of data transferred!

So this puts the ISP in a somewhat tight squeeze; they must use a fixed income to pay variable expenses and still keep the enterprise profitable. That is not an easy thing to do, given the rapidly changing pace of Internet network topology and organisation.

At any rate, doing this hasn't really been a problem in the past, as connection charges from backbone providers are generally low enough that one can make a thundering profit. This has worked quite well in recent years, with everyone limited to 56K connections.
Then, two things happened: 1) Home broadband connections were deployed to many areas. 2) The nature of commonplace Internet activities was revised. The MP3 format became widespread, and then friends like Napster came along. Suddenly everyone is their own server, and transferring quite large amounts of data to top it off.

It is only a natural reaction on the part of the ISP to either charge more (which would not be tolerated by most consumers), or institute an ever-growing list of restrictions on use which basically snuff out anything that could set bandwidth consumption at a significant deviation over the norm. This is not at all surprising, and not just out of cost concerns. Unlike with DSL, a cable Internet connection is not a direct point-to-point connection to your ISP. It is a shared grid that is in most areas designed to fulfill the requirements of a global downstream network in which the signal is intended for all recepients (TV viewers). Dispite thundering claims of upgrades and The New World Order, I would say most areas in North America still lack cable wiring to homes that is capable of delivering an upstream signal back to the provider. In the late 70s and early 80s when the cable infrastructure was designed, few people envisioned that someday being able to talk back to the cable exchange might someday be a grand idea, so in a lot of places, upstream data transmission over cable lines is a cheap "hack" (such as a wiring in of another line) or just outright unreliable. Of course, we should all know by now what happens when an area of the cable grid in an area becomes saturated with customers, particularly ones consuming upstream bandwidth, which requires somewhat more "beef" to accomplish over cable lines. Service sucks.
Most have heard the very realistic proposition that 2% of cable Internet customers in a given area might have consumed 95% of potential bandwidth on the local infrastructural level. Unlike with downstream cable, where the signal is intended for everyone, a few large upstream transmission endpoints can easily saturate the grid to an unusable level. I see this firsthand where I live.

These are all motivating reasons for the ISP to institute these bandwidth caps. For $40/month, you're not going to get something that has the functional equivalent of a T1 line--you might have in the past, when broadband providers were still living their vision of everyone surfing the web at high speed from home. Then it all blew up in their face -- people started running FTP servers with w@r3z, pr0n, mp3z, so this is what you get--what you pay for. People should definitely look at the realistic side of things, and then commence with their complaining.


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Why the fury at home broadband providers? | 20 comments (20 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
I totally agree (2.83 / 6) (#1)
by genisis on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 01:37:28 AM EST

I have had this happen to me through the course of 2 years. When we just moved to our new house, we signed up for @home. As the years passed, the speed became slower and more caps were set into place. Most of my fellow students are outraged they cant run FTP servers and when I try to explain this to them they don't belive me.

Well I for one agree with you, we should think how the cable companies think. Though I belive that they should not cap us.

1 possible way to do this is to have many levels of service, like DSL with each having a set cap.

You get what you pay for... (4.16 / 6) (#2)
by magney on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 01:39:01 AM EST

With my DSL, I'm paying about five times the cost of dialup for well over five times the bandwidth, upstream and downstream. I'm not really aware of the issues facing cablemodem users, though, so take this with a grain of salt

What it looks to me is that the cablemodem shakeout is finally occurring. When you were the only person on your block to have a cablemodem, you had the upstream all to yourself. Now, there's cablemodems all over the place, and things are getting crowded out. The early adopters are feeling robbed, because they're no longer getting the value that they did - but ultimately, it's just that the free ride they'd been getting has been revoked.

I just hope they didn't get five-year contracts... :-)

Seriously, though, broadband's starting to get widely used enough that we've got a better idea of what to expect of it. If cablemodems are a fundamentally flawed technology, it'll fall by the wayside.

And sooner or later, DSL will reach its limits (particularly in areas with old copper in the ground) and there'll be enough demand for the next level that it'll finally be profitable to dig up all the copper and shove fiber optic in. I don't think we'll see that anytime soon, though - say, 5-10 years, quite possibly more.

In the meantime, use what you've got for what it's suited for. Coaxial cable, as installed, is well suited for one-way transfer from the central office to the end user, and thus will work for the user who does a lot of downloading but very little uploading; telecom copper is well suited for two-way communications, so it'll be the choice of users who want to send as well as receive.

Do I look like I speak for my employer?

upstream vs downstream (4.25 / 4) (#3)
by metalgeek on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 04:27:16 AM EST

as an employee of a ISP that provides DSL, my perspective can be a bit different. one issue with the bandwisth caps is basically, it'll cost an isp more to upload than to download. as well, when all the infastructure was laid out/planned, everything was small upload, big download (your request to a site for a page is a hell of a lot smaller than the page itself) As well what I'm seeing is people wanting internet like they have at work, on there nice broadband, high cost lines. our home dsl sells for 449 a year, and thats 1.5 Mbit down and 640kbit up. our high end business is 7mbit down and 2 mbit up for 1495 a year. (canadian dollars) we have more restrictions on the home line, no networks, no servers, right to change your ip, etc. so they complain. loudly and profussly. you try and sell the busniess lines that let you do that stuff to an individual and they'd scream bloody murder about the cost, yet they wonder why we won't let them run large networks, ftp servers, whatever off of the cheap service. what it all comes down to is that people are cheap, and they want everything for nothing.

"K5 is a site where users have the motto 'Anyone Who Isn't Me Is An Idiot, And Anyone Who Disagrees With Me Is Gay'." skyknight
So far so good (2.50 / 4) (#4)
by erotus on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 05:19:59 AM EST

I have cable internet from charter@home. I have to say that I have been very pleased with the service thus far. I have not experienced any downtime except for one occasion when a tornado blew through the metroplex and took out some lines. I don't run any services right now but that could change. I know that my upstream bandwidth is limited, however this is not that big of a problem. I currently live in a neighborhood where cable modem use is very sparse. I don't think that will change very soon given the neighborhood I'm in.

I have friends who have DSL and I can tell you that their downstream rates have yet to equal mine. I know others with cable who's rates don't equal mine either. I have downloaded at sustained rates of over 350KB per second.(that's kiloBytes per second) I am very fortunate to be in the area I'm in right now. Things could change, but for now I'm happy.

Speak the word brother man! (3.00 / 3) (#5)
by duxup on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 06:39:24 AM EST

Personally I'd love to switch from my Telco/DSL provider to cable. However the problems you describe are just what keeps me from doing so. I'd only save about $10 a month myself. I'm blessed with some actual competition in my area (I feel very fortunate).

"Most have heard the very realistic proposition that 2% of cable Internet customers in a given area might have consumed 95% of potential bandwidth on the local infrastructure level."

I agree that is possible. It would be neat to see how much data that 2% moves. I've always wondered if I would be one of those. I do periodical heavy data xfers, but by no means am I running "Bill's Wacky Wearz Ware House" or anything like that. It would be nice if I could pay per bandwidth myself, or pay for X amount of bandwidth used between Y-Z hours. I rarely spend much time on the inet during peak hours myself.

In my current line of work (no, I don't work for the phone company!) I often find myself working with T1s, DS3s, ATM, and some horribly arcane wan links. You are correct about the all you can eat gimmick. In many cases people don't use the majority of the links, in fact it's shocking now many people lose T1s or DS3s and don't notice. In many ways it's a necessity for some companies. When your paying millions a month for your wan links it's much easier to budget if you've got a flat rate.

It's the bait and switch (3.25 / 4) (#6)
by tommasz on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 08:57:06 AM EST

What makes people mad is the bait and switch tactics that (perhaps unwittingly) are used by the providers. No one sells DSL with the tag line "almost as fast as your old 56K modem!" In their hurry to provide high speed access, the providers have overlooked the system-level aspects of doing so. Maybe it's the old Telco thinking that's doing it, but the years of people using modems over phone lines for long periods should have taught them to plan for lots of connections, all the time, with data flowing to the max. Didn't anyone do a simple calculation of the number of customers X bandwidth/customer to determine if their connection to the backbone could handle it? My guess is no.

There's nothing wrong with limitations, just be upfront about them. It may cause some customers to avoid your service, but it could cut down on the complaints.

Re: It's the bait and switch (3.50 / 4) (#8)
by mandomania on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 09:59:28 AM EST

Didn't anyone do a simple calculation of the number of customers X bandwidth/customer to determine if their connection to the backbone could handle it? My guess is no.

You've hit the nail right on the head. One of the things that keeps ISP owners awake at night is that very calculation, particularly the bandwidth/customer part. Let's take dialup modem users as a simple example.

You can safely assume that each dialup modem user has at 56k modem (they're so cheap nowadays, and I can't think of a name-brand computer that still packages 28.8 or 33. modems with their computers). So, each customer can use a max of 56k/sec. Right?

Here's the tricky part. If you allocate 56k for each modem user, you end up with a ton of surplus bandwidth. Why? Lots of reasons. Most users aren't online 24/7. Maybe some users can't connect at 56k. So, you try and figure out how much bandwidth you can allocate before customers start using it up. Some places will only allocate 15k/user, while some will allocate 30k. It all depends on their size, their business model, etc. And it gets infintely more complex as you add different services (Bonded modems, ISDN, ADSL, SDSL, etc.)

It's a tricky deal, because adding new bandwidth to an ISP is rather non-trivial. And it's expensive.

The Code is Sound.
[ Parent ]
Re: It's the bait and switch (4.33 / 3) (#9)
by El Volio on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 10:05:13 AM EST

Actually, that's not how you do bandwidth calculations. You factor in how many users will be doing transfers concurrently, which is different from how many are on-line concurrently. That is, just because you're surfing the web doesn't mean you're constantly downloading pages; you spend time looking at it.

Granted, the advent of broadband changes that factor. Things that weren't practical at dialup speeds now are, and so longer, sustained transfers are more common. Still, you don't plan, "100,000 customers * 1.5 Mb/sec = 150,000 Mb/sec". That's not realistic. Customers, as you correctly point out, should be better educated on what they're getting. Want cheap bandwidth that's not highly guaranteed? Go cable. Want more reliable bandwidth (albeit still not guaranteed) but willing to pay more? Go DSL.

Personally, I used cable modem service from AT&T@Home for two and a half years, and it was great. Few service interruptions, didn't have too much of a local slowdown. My bandwidth needs grew: I needed more upstream capacity, and TOS that allowed me to run a server. I would have liked to stay with the cable modem service, and paid for some sort of "premium package", but it didn't work out. I switched to DSL (384k both ways) and never looked back, even though I'm paying more than twice what I paid before.

I still recommend cable modem to the average home user, though. The overly restrictive TOS still don't affect most of the home users I know: as long as they can surf the Web quickly, do the occasional large download at high speeds, and comfortably watch streaming media, 98% are happy. To the other 2%, I say: Too bad cable doesn't want your business; have you tried DSL?

Disclaimer: I work for an extremely large enterprise that is heavily involved in DSL, but I'm in a separate subsidiary that will be spun off in the near future. In fact, I only have my line from this company, I don't even use it as my ISP.

[ Parent ]

At least give me a choice. (3.25 / 4) (#7)
by n8f8 on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 09:51:25 AM EST

The problem I have with @Home is that the service contract is so limited even using instant messenger is against the rules. I wouldn't mind the upload limits if only they would let me use my chunk of the pie for whatever I want. DSL would be a good solution but unfortunately it's not available. You have to be <3miles from a switching station. I currently live on a highway less than 1/2 mile from a University and I still can't get DSL.

Sig: (This will get posted after your comments)
Re: At least give me a choice. (3.00 / 2) (#16)
by sasha on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 04:15:53 PM EST

Well, I don't know ... I feel that if I have a 128kbit upload cap, I can use it for whatever I bloody well please. :-)

And yes, the AUP is so vehemently against anything with listening sockets that it's self-contradictory. Gee, guess I can't run the X Window System server now either, eh?
--- Signal SIGSIG received. Signature too long.
[ Parent ]

Using DSL ... (4.00 / 2) (#10)
by wesmills on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 10:13:11 AM EST

A friend of mine and myself both have broadband connections, his is cable through ATT@Home (DSL isn't available due to phone issues in his apartment complex) and mine is DSL from GTE and a local ISP. He pays about $60 a month for his service, that has a 128k upload cap and severe "NO SERVER" restrictions (he got a warning for running Win2k's terminal server on one machine), and 4 IP addresses (one on a different subnet than the other 3). He likes the speed and hasn't had any major problems with it, but still wants what I have, which is: $32.50 to my ISP for any speed line I want (3GB up and 3GB down quotas, more on that in a moment), a subnet of 16 IP addresses that won't change, and a wide open TOS, plus a $68 bill to the phone company for DSL transport.

Sure, I get about half his maximum bandwidth, but mine is an open road, free for doing whatever I want to, and his is like a tollbooth every 3 miles. As for the transfer quotas: Look at what the original story said... ISPs pay by data transferred, not speed of the line. Ergo, my ISP says I can have whatever speed line I want from GTE, be it 256/64 all the way to 1536/768, and I pay the same rate for the amount of data I shove around. Our included caps keep going up as their data transport costs get cheaper. I've never exceeded my transfer quotas, and probably never will, since they tell me that bandwidth is getting cheap enough, they'll have such high caps in the future that they may as well not even exist.

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Arrogance (3.66 / 3) (#11)
by aphrael on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 12:13:06 PM EST

What irritates me about providers is *not* the bandwidth limitations or tendencies to charge more for additional bandwidth; these are reasonable given market realities. I may not like it, but if I consume more, making me pay more isn't unreasonable.

However ... the fact that many providers who used to provide static IPs (pac bell/sbc, for example) no longer do, and often aren't even willing to let you pay more for that service unless you jump up in scale to their 'business' package is infuriating.

By far the worst behavior i've seen is from tycho networks (a local dsl provider, founded as a dialup ISP six years ago). A friend of mine who was one of their original customers has a dialup connection, 56.6, with *255 IP addresses* (which was the standard when he became a customer). He doesn't need more than a handful of them, and wants to upgrade to DSL --- but, of course, tycho doesn't support having more than one IP for a customer-grade DSL account. Nor will they work a deal whereby he gives up some of his 255 IPs, converts his account to DSL and keeps the rest of his IPs (which would be in their interest if they were really concerned about IP shortages).

My general experience with ISPs is that they share with public utilities the arrogant disregard for the interests of the customer, and a complete unwillingness to be flexible to find a way to simultaneously meet the interests of the customer and the business. My guess is that they ended up drawing most of their employees from those industries, and they carried the attitudes with them.

Re: Arrogance (4.50 / 2) (#14)
by AsmodeusB on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 03:21:18 PM EST

My general experience with ISPs is that they share with public utilities the arrogant disregard for the interests of the customer, and a complete unwillingness to be flexible to find a way to simultaneously meet the interests of the customer and the business. My guess is that they ended up drawing most of their employees from those industries, and they carried the attitudes with them.

Its not this at all. Its a huge pain in the ass to keep track of all the various quirky configurations that users request. How many IPs does this customer have? What's their bandwith restrictions? How much are they paying for this particular group of features? That's just the beginning.

This is why there are packages for dialup users. You get this and this and this, and *this* is what it costs you. Businesses get a greater freedom to pick and choose what they want because they pay a lot more for the administrative headaches of the people who keep everything running. We personally don't care whether the individual in question is a business entity or a real live person, we don't let 'real live people' pick and choose because they aren't paying enough to make it feasable. If they want to pay business rates, they can choose whatever they want. But that may just be us.

I am one of the people keeping it all running.


[ Parent ]

Re: Arrogance (3.00 / 1) (#18)
by upperclasstwit on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 07:54:01 PM EST

i agree w/ the poster in that i don't feel troubled by the fees at all......it's the 3rd world country breadline quality of service.

i'm so pissed at the whole pacbell(Pac-Hell--so true/sbc/asi conspiracy that i thought this thread provided me a thinly disguised venue for venting my holy rage.

i am sure a pacbell/asi tech/support person has a terrible, thankless job but whatever the circumstances that led to this collosal mess, somebody should put pac-bell out of their(our) misery.

My experience w/ pacbell: 384/128 aDSL installed July '99. Got a good Alcatel modem and was installed about 2 weeks after I placed the order. One week later the connection died.(not my fault) Exactly 31 days, 21 phone calls, and 2 field tech visits later it began working again.(misconfigured router was the explanation).
One of the field techs left my house in a red-faced rage because the support people he called had him on hold for 1 hour and 20 minutes.

At work, where we have 4 DSL lines already installed, we tried to order a 5th in February 2000. It still isn't working 8 months and countless phone calls later. "It's Pac-Bell's fault" "No, It's ASI's fault" "No, It's Pac-Bell's fault." "No, It's ASI's fault." The 3rd ASI field tech came to our work, pretended to hook up the modem and left promptly at 5pm, filling out a work order that said the job was completed.

At home, my roomate had the phone account in his name even though I set up the dsl service and paid for it. My roomate moved out so I called to have the service switched to my name. Guess what? They are INCAPABLE of transferring anything w/ DSL associated w/ it. They told me that if I wanted to transfer the phone account I would: Have my working, single IP dsl account shut off immediately. Then I would have to re-order and re-pay for new DSL service, I would lose my static ip, and wait for 2-3 months for a new DHCP account to be provisioned.<BR>

I can't make any changes to my phone service whatsoever w/out losing my DSL service for 3 months!!!

I ended up bribing my roomate to keep the account in his name.

Long story short...if you live in So-Cal and have working DSL service...(DON'T F*CK W/ IT!...THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO!!!...)

That being said...when the service is running...it is good and i am pleased w/ the no-restrictions policy.

I don't see any better alternative in the short-term future except for maybe Gilat's bi-directional satellite service which has yet to reach market here.

[ Parent ]
Firewall (4.00 / 2) (#12)
by Icculus on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 02:23:56 PM EST

Ok, you really have two scenarios (that I can think of):

  • They track your usage and impose some sort of transfer quota.
  • You can't really work around this since they'll log your usage regardless of port.

  • They scan your box for open ports and send you threatening letters.
  • This is much easier to work around since you can either block their scanning servers with a firewall or run your services on a non-standard port.

    After a few days of running portsentry on my firewall, I picked up scans from Mediaone (I assumed) trying to find open ports. You can take that info and plug it into your ipf/ipchains deny policies and you're set. Of course, this really doesn't affect the problem of bandwidth caps, but you can at least run services if you feel the need without fear of molestation from your ISP.

    Re: Firewall (3.00 / 2) (#15)
    by sasha on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 04:12:23 PM EST

    Fascist ipchains policies are certainly one way to go about it, but if you really have a Nazi ISP, they'll use far more low level scanners (I forget the name of one such product offhand).

    Most aren't, though. They scare you with an AUP that's almost self-contradictory in nature, and are usually too incompetent to actually scan anything or read logs -- or so I hear from most people.
    --- Signal SIGSIG received. Signature too long.
    [ Parent ]

    (4.00 / 2) (#13)
    by tzanger on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 02:54:20 PM EST

    few people envisioned that someday being able to talk back to the cable exchange might someday be a grand idea, so in a lot of places, upstream data transmission over cable lines is a cheap "hack" (such as a wiring in of another line) or just outright unreliable. Of course, we should all know by now what happens when an area of the cable grid in an area becomes saturated with customers, particularly ones consuming upstream bandwidth, which requires somewhat more "beef" to accomplish over cable lines. Service sucks.

    A second cable line for upstream? The cheap (and correct!) way to do it is to install bidirectional amplifiers in the cable system instead of the one-way which were originally installed.

    The reason they're so pissed about servers on their cable system is that everyone transmits on the same frequency (the sub-low band) which is restricted to a single "channel"'s worth of bandwidth. Cable modems (IIRC) can recieve on multiple "channels" and therefore the downstream restrictions aren't really a problem.

    Cap B*tching (3.00 / 2) (#17)
    by jtown@punk.net on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 05:36:25 PM EST

    As a former DirecPC customer, I can understand the complaints about speed caps _if they weren't disclosed_. However, when I got my cablemodem, there was no question that I was signing up for 512/128 service. It never even crossed my mind that I should bitch and whine because my hardware is capable of handling far more bandwidth than they're giving me. According to the manual, it can cope with 30mbps (which makes the 10BaseT interface a bottleneck). If I want more speed, I can (and currently do) pay $25 more for 768/256 or $50 more and get 1024/384 (both of which include a static IP). So far they've never failed to provide that speed each and every time I ask for it. I sometimes leave my system downloading at full speed for more than a day and the speed has never slacked off and I've never received a Nasty Letter(tm). I can download Linux ISOs at 80-90kbytes/sec and see 25-30kbytes/sec when grabbing files off my home machine when I'm at work and I'm paying for 768/256 service. I can start an ISO download at 8pm and it ramps right up to full speed. No different than a Sunday morning. The only real complaint I have is their failure to provide adequate notice when they changed my "static" IP. That was a nice surprise when I got back from vacation. And I never received the callback that was promised or any explanation for their failure to provide adequate advance notice. Jamie

    can't complain, yet (none / 0) (#19)
    by calimus on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 02:48:38 PM EST

    I'm of a lucky few that live in a remote area that has cable access to the net. The company was generous wih the bandwidth 2mb/256k, and even as more ppl do get on the service, my speed still has not dropped anywhere near the level that would cause me to complain.

    Yet, at some point I know I will be tossed into the lot of whinners that are the dis-satisfied cable users of the world. When that time comes I hope that someone will remind me that I knew what I was getting into first, and that no matter how the speed drops, it's faster then my old 56k dial-up. An in the end I'll do what most will do and move to the next higher level is bandwidth technology, hand over my hard earned money, and be happy till the cycle starts all over again.

    Trying to be different, Just like everyone else
    ATT@home allows *certain* services (none / 0) (#20)
    by mattx on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 06:32:59 PM EST

    According to my contract, you can run http, ftp, telnet, and a handful of other services on your line. In fact, I believe it's encouraged to have a firewall box. I've been running apache and win2k telnet server for 3 months, haven't heard anything from ATT (well, yet.) As for upstream bandwidth, I don't do much uploading or allowing downloads from my system. I've tried running a small download site, and it makes my system run dog slow. I don't upload big files (I upload web pages and such) but other than that I have no need for high upstream. I think that's what ATT is expecting for their customers. They're aiming for the casual home user.

    -- i fear that i am ordinary, just like everyone

    Why the fury at home broadband providers? | 20 comments (20 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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