Thursday, December 1, 2016

What’s with the 512 Kbps?

512 is a number that we are likely to encounter if we have been using internet in Nepal. Nepali homes with internet pre-fibre and post-dial-up are likely to have installed a 512 Kbps unlimited cable internet connection. If you have subscribed to Nepal Telecom’s volume based ADSL internet, you have 512 Kbps speed. We can find 512 multiple times in current Nepali information technology narratives, visions and policies. Here are a few ways to look at 512 Kbps in the context of Nepal:
  1.  It is the proposed minimum download speed for wired-internet. For mobile-phone internet there is no minimum set in the documents.
  2. Connections offering download speed of 512 Kbps and above are labelled as broadband in the IT/ICT/Broadband literature.
  3. It is the common default fallback speed on high-speed fibre internet plans after the data volume has been exhausted.
  4. ISPs can also throttle your Mbps internet speed down to 512 Kbps anytime as part of their ‘fair usage policy’. If you are wondering why your 10 Mbps internet is delivering no faster than a 512 Kbps connection, data limit and throttling are usually the two main culprits.
  5.  It will take you 1 minute to download a smart-phone quality photograph from the Internet or 21 hours for a DVD-movie with a constant speed of 512Kbps.
  6. You will be charged Rs. 1 every 17 seconds on a Rs. 1 per MB mobile-phone Internet tariff delivering the data at a stable speed of 512 Kbps. If you are not paying at that rate means you are getting data at a much lower speed or browsing mostly text content.

Notes:
  •  In IT related policy documents you can find targets mentioning 512 Kbps such as: “Broadband access will be expanded across the country with the goal of achieving a broadband Internet user penetration rate of 30% at a minimum of 512 kbps and making available at least 10 Mbps download speed on demand in urban areas by 2018” (Source: www.nta.gov.np/en/component/joomdoc/Broadband%20Policy-Draft.pdf/download). It is same as in India where the decision to classify 512 Kbps as broadband has been heavily criticized with some labelling it as ‘a joke’, ‘archaic and useless’, ‘out of touch with reality’ and a ‘move back to the dark ages’ (Too many to list here. Readers can google or bing: trai India broadband 512 and find out for themselves). The criticism comes due to the telecom regulators buckling to pressure from the telecom operators and a u-turn from the original 2Mbps recommendation given a few months earlier. Currently India’s average Internet speed puts it at the slowest in the Asia-Pacific region. A minimum of 512 Kbps now is akin to a dial-up connection where most countries in the world are far ahead. Such actions do not match with Nepal’s digital ambitions expressed in the policy documents. The (speed) gap is wide as ever.
  • The data cap and throttling creates a paradox. High speed internet is meant to be used for high bandwidth applications such as high-definition video and live TV streaming but data cap restricts such possibilities. For example, an internet user on a 10 Mbps connection will exhaust the 80 GB data cap after just 18 hours of full usage. A 4 hour per day usage can extend access to ‘fast’ internet for 5 days only, leaving 25 days on the buffered browsing experience. The reasons to why it may seem to last longer to a customer are because: (i) ISPs give the promised 10 Mbps on certain time slots only as an realization of their ‘fair usage policy’; and (ii) customers mostly use the internet for low bandwidth applications such as web browsing and VoIP (viber/skype voice chat) services anyways.
  •  Regulations do not cover the minimum speed at which ISPs can throttle the internet in Nepal. Currently ISPs actively throttle the bandwidth under the ‘fair usage policy’ (FUP). For example, ISPs can penalize the users that are responsible for heavy use of the bandwidth by slowing their connections to those applications. Throttling has been a thorny issue worldwide with frequent reports of intentional throttling by the ISPs. Such measure also raises questions on the nation’s net neutrality ambitions. The usual response from the ISPs, as is the case in India, is that without throttling they cannot provide fast internet at an affordable price. Therefore, though India wants to set the minimum at 512 Kbps, ISPs want it to be set at 64 Kbps at best. Nepal has no minimum but we can rest assured that we are being actively throttled at promised speeds and will be throttled down to a lower speed after data cap is hit. Worryingly, there is nothing we can do about it. Here is an example definition of what ‘fair’ is: “Day to day surfing, checking emails and occasional downloading will not get you into trouble. However, downloading a 200-300 MB movie clip/data every day is almost certain to. The key is to keep an eye on the amount that you are downloading. Then if you’re classed as a heavy or excessive user, restructure your internet usage pattern so that you are not uploading or downloading at peak times. If you don’t take heed of their warnings, system will slow down the speed of your connection after your data limit.” (Source: https://www.classic.com.np/support/fair-usage-policy-fup/)

    To put it simply, ISPs and telecoms want the users’ to stick to text-based website browsing. Ironically they themselves sell fast internet so that you can enjoy the multimedia experience. Indian telecom operators such as Airtel recently recommended a minimum of 64 Kbps, or an alternative, not set minimum speed on throttling in order for internet to be affordable. The original recommendation from TRAI (telecom regulator in India) was for a minimum of 2 Mbps broadband speed, which was quickly pulled down to a neither-here-nor-there 512 Kbps. The original recommendations were based on studies of internet traffic and applications which suggested a minimum of 1 Mbps for India. Given that our fibre internet connections comes from such Indian operators at their dictated price, throttling and data cap is even severe in Nepal. And its your fault for not adhering to the 'fair usage policy' if your connection speed slows down. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

A bit on a bit:
The space taken by a file stored in a computer is usually mentioned in Kilo Bytes (1 KB = about 1000 Bytes) or Mega Bytes (1 MB = about 1000 KB) or Giga Bytes (1 GB = about 1000 MB). From a users’ perspective, measurement in KB, MB and GB is commonly associated with average sizes of text documents (e.g. word document), images (e.g. pictures taken from a smart-phone) and movies (e.g. DVDs) respectively. It therefore makes intuitive sense for Internet data tariff to be mentioned in ‘per KB’ or ‘per MB’ usage. But download speed of an internet connection is historically stated in ‘bits per second’ (bps) because ‘a bit’ is the smallest piece of information that can be transmitted over the network. Since a bit is a very small unit we are familiar in seeing interned speed expressed in kilobits per second (Kbps) or megabits per second (Mbps).

For those who worry that 1000 is not 1024:
“It's convenient within the computer to organize things in groups of powers of 2. For example, 2^10 is 1024, and so a program might group 1024 items together, as a sort of "round" number of things within the computer. The term "kilobyte" above refers to this group size of 1024 things. However, people also group things by thousands -- 1 thousand or 1 million items.

There's this problem with the word "megabyte" .. does it mean 1024 * 1024 bytes, i.e. 2^20 which is 1,048,576, or does it mean exactly 1 million, 1000 * 1000. It's just a 5% difference, but marketers tend to prefer the 1 million, interpretation, since it makes their hard drives etc. appear to hold a little bit more. Also, the difference grows larger and larger for the gigabyte and terabyte sizes. In an attempt to fix this, the terms "kibibyte" "mebibyte" "gibibyte" "tebibyte" have been introduced to specifically mean the 1024 based units. These terms do not seem to have caught on very strongly thus far. If nothing else, remember that terms like "megabyte" have this little wiggle room in them between the 1024 and 1000 based meanings. We will never grade off for this distinction .. "about a million" will be our close-enough interpretation for "megabyte". The "error" at the megabyte level is about 5%. At the terabyte level the error is about 10%.” (Source: https://web.stanford.edu/class/cs101/bits-gigabytes.html#alternate)

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