Is the 'Bandwidth Hog' a Myth?

Every ISP's discussions of pricing plans, net neutrality or piracy invoke the same faceless villains: the bandwidth hogs. Benoît Felten, analyst and blogger, has been working in telecom for over a decade, and he wants proof these monsters even exist.

With the debate on net neutrality in full swing in the US, we've been hearing about Bandwidth Hogs again. 'Bandwidth Hog' is a sound bite that conveys a strong emotion: you can virtually see the fat pig chomping on the bandwidth, pushing back all the other animals in the barnyard with his fat pig shoulders all the while scrutinizing with his shiny piggy eyes to see if the farmer isn't around...

The image is so powerful that everyone thinks they understand what the term means , no one questions if the analogy is correct. In discussing this issue, Herman and I realised we had serious doubts about the existence of that potentially mythical beast. In fact, we are not sure even the telcos know what a bandwidth hog is and does.

But it makes great headlines: "Net Neutrality will force the telco's to give The Internet away to Bandwidth Hogs". They claim that bandwidth hogs steal all the bandwidth and cause network congestion, and therefore their behaviour harms all the other regular and peaceful law-abiding users. And to add insult to injury they pay the same price as the others! No, policing and rationing must be applied by the benevolent telco to protect the innocent.

Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, the way that telcos identify the Bandwidth Hogs is not by monitoring if they cause unfair traffic congestion for other users. No, they just measure the total data downloaded per user, list the top 5% and call them hogs.

For those service providers with data caps, these are usually set around 50 Gbyte and go up to 150 Gbyte a month. This is therefore a good indication of the level of bandwidth at which you start being considered a "hog". But wait: 50 Gbyte a month is… 150 kbps average (0,15 Mbps), 150 Gbyte a month is 450 kbps on average. If you have a 10 Mbps link, that's only 1,5 % or 4,5 % of its maximum advertised speed!

And that would be "hogging"?

The fact is that what most telcos call hogs are simply people who overall and on average download more than others. Blaming them for network congestion is actually an admission that telcos are uncomfortable with the 'all you can eat' broadband schemes that they themselves introduced on the market to get people to subscribe. In other words, the marketing push to get people to subscribe to broadband worked, but now the telcos see a missed opportunity at price discrimination...

As Herman explains in his post, TCP/IP is by definition an egalitarian protocol. Implemented well, it should result in an equal distribution of available bandwidth in the operator's network between end-users; so the concept of a bandwidth hog is by definition an impossibility. An end-user can download all his access line will sustain when the network is comparatively empty, but as soon as it fills up from other users' traffic, his own download (or upload) rate will diminish until it's no bigger than what anyone else gets.

Now I'm pretty sure that many telcos will disagree with our assessment of this. So here's a challenge for them: in the next few days, I will specify on this blog a standard dataset that would enable me to do an in-depth data analysis into network usage by individual users. Any telco willing to actually understand what's happening there and to answer the question on the existence of hogs once and for all can extract that data and send it over to me, I will analyse it for free, on my spare time. All I ask is that they let me publish the results of said research (even though their names need not be mentioned if they don't wish it to be). Of course, if I find myself to be wrong and if indeed I manage to identify users that systematically degrade the experience for other users, I will say so publicly. If, as I suspect, there are no such users, I will also say so publicly. The data will back either of these assertions.

Please email me if you're interested. And please publicise this offer if you're not in a position to extract such a dataset but are still interested in the answer. This is a much more important question than knowing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!


Reprinted with permission from Fiberevolution; written in collaboration with Dadamotive. Megahog source image from the AP via TheAge