Terry Pratchett & scarcity economics in communications regulation #commsreview HT: @dml @adamkinsley

I was chatting with DML earlier today about communications regulation and how certain mindsets – common in regulatory environments – are not equipped to deal with the abundance that is possible with digital goods; instead there are always appeals to there being self-evident limits to:

  • how many network addresses remain (yay IPv6)
  • how big a computer you actually need (how many “MIPS”?)
  • how much e-mail/content one can read in a day (“information overload is killing business”)
  • what bandwidth allocations you can pack into a radio spectrum (this month)
  • what minimum network bandwidth a home user requires for legal use (ie: no filesharing)

…this last one in particular came up in Twitter-discussion of today’s communications review:

I quietly exploded at the implications of this:

“…as someone who works from home and frequently has to sling 1Gb Linux images around, anyone suggesting I can make do with 2.5Mb is a bloody lunatic. I could easily use a 20Mb line bidirectionally. What is worse is not having adequate symmetric bandwidth to host a server at home. What small minded, short sighted, petty idiot thinks that there’s such a thing as a “legally permissible” amount of bandwidth…”

…but the answer, as ever, is in Terry Pratchett; an extract from Night Watch which I* believe to be his finest work; watch the character of Reg Shoe: (my emphasis)

‘A present from the lads down at the Shambles, sarge,’ said Dickins, arriving with a wagon. They said it’d only spoil otherwise. Is it okay for me to dish ’em out to the field kitchens?’

‘What’ve you got?’ said Vimes.

‘Steaks, mostly,’ said the old sergeant, grinning. ‘But I liberated a sack of onions in the name of the revolution!’ He saw Vimes’s expression change. ‘No, sarge, the man gave them to me, see. They need eating, he said.’

‘What did I tell you? Every meal will be a feast in the People’s Republic!’ said Reg Shoe, striding up. He still hung on to his clipboard; people like Reg tend to. ‘If you could just take it along to the official warehouse, sergeant?’

‘What warehouse?’

Reg sighed. ‘All food must go into the common warehouse and be distributed by my officials according to-‘

‘Mr Shoe,’ said Dickins, ‘there’s a cart with five hundred chickens coming up behind me, and there’s another full of eggs. There’s nowhere to send ’em, see? The butchers have filled up the ice-houses and smoke-rooms and the only place we can store this grub is in our guts. I ain’t particularly bothered about officials.’

‘On behalf of the Republic I order you-‘ Reg began, and Vimes put his hand on his shoulder.

‘Off you go, sergeant,’ he said, nodding to Dickins. ‘A word in your ear, Reg?’

‘Is this a military coop?’ said Reg uncertainly, holding his clipboard.

‘No, it’s just that we’re under siege here, Reg. This is not the time. Let Sergeant Dickins sort it out. He’s a fair man, he just doesn’t like clipboards.’

‘But supposing people get left out?’ said Reg.

‘There’s enough for everyone to eat themselves sick, Reg.’

Reg Shoe looked uncertain and disappointed, as though this prospect was less pleasing than carefully rationed scarcity.

‘But I’ll tell you what,’ said Vimes. ‘If this goes on, the city will see to it the deliveries come in by other gates. We’ll be hungry then. That’s when we’ll need your organizational skills.’

‘You mean we’ll be in a famine situation?’ said Reg, the light of hope in his eyes.

‘If we aren’t, Reg, I’m sure you could organize one,’ said Vimes, and realized he’d gone just a bit too far. Reg was only stupid in certain areas, and now he looked as though he was going to cry.

I just think it’s important to be fair-‘ the man began.

‘Yeah, Reg. I understand. But there’s a time and a place, you know? Maybe the best way to build a bright new world is to peel some spuds in this one? Now, off you go. And you, Lance-Constable Vimes, you go and help him.’

….and there you have it; some people have an overwhelming urge to sort things out on behalf of the little people, and the first thing they try to do is put themselves in the middle of everything.

But not from a lust for power, oh no… nothing so crass as that.

It’s benevolence.

*as agreed with several other friends

14 Replies to “Terry Pratchett & scarcity economics in communications regulation #commsreview HT: @dml @adamkinsley”

  1. Dear me, 2.5MB/s is less than quarter of a TB a day, that’s ridiculous!

    A single bioinfomatics machine can generate TBs a day and MRIs from hospitals can be huge. All of these get shipped around over the Internet in general – not just fancy academic networks..

    We see research sites which have ADSL links and end up shipping USB drives because they can’t get enough bandwidth (don’t get me started on quota) and the Australian NBN with its 100Mb/s connection (~12MB/s, about 1TB a day flat out) is still not going to really be fast enough for them..

  2. Agreed, but family like ours playing a game together, 1 Mbps x 6. We usually have 15 Mbps & that’s plenty but 2 Mbps would make it so we couldn’t run around in MMOGs, bonding as a group of people who really like each other (our kids ROCK). Now that the older two are in college, being able to bond through game is absolutely crucial.

    I like how it would put a spotlight on filesharing, makes it more visible. As long as it’s per capita & allows for telecommuters / home-based businesses then limitations, if well-implemented, can be a great way to raise awareness. Would this shift to making data not just for the rich, but equalise the field?

    NZ sure raised my awareness about data limitations & I’m grateful.

  3. A typical decent HD camera shoots at 35-50mbps. Until we have uploads speeds of 200mbps+, for a single day shooting it is actually quicker to drive across the country and copy it to a hard drive on arrival than send the footage to a client. One hour footage is at least 16gb+.

    Digital society my arse!! We are nowhere even close. It is quicker to send stuff in the post still.

    Same goes for back up in the supposed ‘cloud’. Back up when on move is done by copying and then posting SD cards to your home address! It may as well still be an actual cloud as its just a metaphor if you use a camera.

  4. Firstly, let’s assume that the author meant “the standard user in her home”. Complaining about not being able to sling TB of raw fotage around is like complaining to Thames Water that your domestic pipe can’t sustain your car washing enterprise.

    So, what is it realistic that the average user will consume if she isn’t permanently seeding evil torrents?

    Well, the recently announced YouView TV service requires a minimum of 3Mbps. If you’re a 2.4 children household with a box in the lounge & one for the kids, that’s at least 6Mbps. If you want to second screen on your phone (check Twitter etc) better add another 0.5Mbps to cover all the family members.

    What’s that? Little Timmy is doing his homework as well? Reading Wikipedia (naughty boy!) and watching a video lecture while he listens to Spotify – let’s give him 2.5Mbps.

    That’s 10Mbps right there for a family of four at peak time. And they’re not doing anything exotic yet.

    My mobile phone shoots video at 1080p – it’s last year’s model. A 1 minute clip of my cat is 60MB. Trying to upload that to YouTube will take an age at 1Mbps (assuming normal ADSL). To stream it to a relative on the other side of the planet in real time would be impossible.

    2.5Mbps is adequate for a single person surfing the web. But it will be mildy inconvenient and require careful planning. I remember being on a 56K modem and scheduling my software downloads to take place overnight.

    Way back in the mists of time, when I was at university, I was connected to the Internet at 100Mbps. Even then it felt slow – animated GIFs, embedded quicktime movies, webcam streaming – they all conspired to eat up my bandwidth bit by bit.

    Parkinson’s Law states

    Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

    Well, it should be patently obvious that Internet activity expands so as to saturate the current bandwidth.

    1. Terence,

      I’m with you right up to the last line:

      >Well, it should be patently obvious that Internet activity expands so as to saturate the current bandwidth.

      …I would say that it expands and diversifies; this is not just a case of getting fatter, but getting fitter, and better, and more interesting.

      By comparison: Microsoft Word expands to fill the memory and compute power of the machine it is installed upon, but it is still a word processor; but your internet link is your route to everything, and it could be everything’s route to you.

      Hence why I can’t really buy into your “sustain a car washing enterprise” comment; why is it an “enterprise” to want to host my blog at home and have people come to me to get content that I create, as opposed to pushing it to YouTube?

      In short:

      • Where is it written that “domestic home users are not meant to host servers”?
      • Where is it written that we are meant to have internet access at home, rather than internet connectivity?
      • What wonders might simply occur if we were symmetrically connected?

      update: in case it’s not obvious, beyond that, yes.

      1. Here is where I think we slightly disagree.

        To start with, there’s nothing stopping you from buying a FTTC / FTTP product or – if you’re willing to splash the cash – getting a dedicated line.

        Secondly, I think that there is a qualitative difference between domestic and professional usage. That’s the same with any product. Most people don’t need 3-phase electricity – but they can buy it if they want to operate heavy machinery at home. Assuming the grid can take it.

        While I would like a symmetrical connection, there is no doubt that the Internet inherently sucks. People download more than they upload. Once you get to the stage when you’re pushing out more than you consume – you probably need professional hosting and connectivity.

        And, let’s take it a step further – even the BBC uses a globally distributed CDN. They don’t just have a very fat pipe going into TVC 🙂

        There are two separate issues.
        1) I want to be able to consume. That requires at least 8Mb down – and probably a good deal more.
        2) I want to produce. That only requires a sufficient* connection to a server which can then peer the content.

        Here’s the crux of the matter, for me: Would you want your TV consumption to be knocked out because your website was getting Slashdotted?


        *left as an exercise to the reader

        1. Hi again,

          I totally respect your viewpoint – which is a reflection of reality – but that’s what I would like to see change; you mention:

          People download more than they upload

          …and yes, they have to, in fact they are forced to adopt architectures which promote that because of the pre-existing investment in infrastructure which assumes that.

          And what happens? High-bandwidth downloads from otherwise crippled “end users” – they of the asymmetric bandwidth – is synthesised / faked-up in a half-arsed way through the invention of Bittorrent

          The demand for uploading a file quickly exists because:

          1) people create content

          2) other people consume content

          3) the consumers want to get the data from the creators

          The success of the internet to date has been mostly through disintermediation – ask Amazon about their e-books, and then ask an old-stylee print publisher; I side with Amazon – but the asymmetric nature of bandwidth means we are still wedded to indirect communication, where (say) Youtube is the intermediary.

          Saying that nothing stopping you from buying FTTC is true, in the same way there’s nothing stopping me paying more to fly to my holiday destination rather than drive – but since this is a digital sphere and there is no negative downside to giving everyone the ability to fly, just think of the aggregate benefit to the nation if anyone was allowed to travel that quickly, anywhere.

          Also, you note:

          While I would like a symmetrical connection, there is no doubt that the Internet inherently sucks. People download more than they upload. Once you get to the stage when you re pushing out more than you consume you probably need professional hosting and connectivity.

          I ask people how many webservers they run at home. Typically they say “zero”.

          Then I ask if they run a Bittorrent client. A Printer. Some games. Any “discoverable” devices. A webcam. The numbers rapidly mount up. Most/all of these are webservers. Some/all of them could be usefully accessed from the internet.

          So there’s the rub – until people are able to run stuff at home usefully, they won’t; but if they could then the potential would be huge.

          And, let s take it a step further even the BBC uses a globally distributed CDN.

          That’s OK – I’m not the BBC. I just have an audience of a few thousand people around the world. 20Mb each-way would be enough for the moment.

          Here s the crux of the matter, for me: Would you want your TV consumption to be knocked out because your website was getting Slashdotted?

          Ah, there is a standard for that, IPQoS – but AGAIN we also face the fallacy that this will happen to all people, all the time; perhaps I will get slashdotted one day, but 99.99+% of the population won’t be.

          Please avoid looking at endpoints and generalising; look at infrastructure and the potential to upgrade it for everyone.

          Also: I watch most of my TV on download nowadays. Lag is not an issue. 🙂

    2. Why assume a standard “home” user? It just said “fastest legal use of Internet”. Even if it did was a home user there are plenty of people who do work from home (especially for some very large companies) for whom a maximum of 2.5MB/s is just crazy.

  5. I suspect the Arqiva report result is a “statistic” I would therefore consider it to be complete rubbish.

    On the one hand we have people like those above who would be quite happy with a gigabit connection and still railing about it taking too long to upload their uncompressed 32bit 64K sample rate audio.
    On the other hand we have vast swathes of the population that believe “internet” is email and “going online” to look at Youtube videos and the BBC news website.

    So we have one group of people who might already have a connection that goes at, lets say 50Mbit and they use most of that bandwidth one solid day a week and say maybe about 10Mbit the rest of the time. So just by averaging, we’re already down from needing a 200M connection so you can do that huge transfer in a sensible time to an average of needing only about 16M.

    Then look at the other group whose peak usage is probably less than 8Mbit (because that’s their link speed is, not because that’s what they need) they’re online for a couple of hours a day using that 8M and the rest of the time it’s practically zero. They’re going to suck the average down so far, I can’t even calculate it.

    Or, if you want to calculate a statistic in a different way :
    BT’s AUP for the cheaper infinity product is 40GB/month. About 1.3GB/day, 55MB/hour, 1MB/minute, 16KB/s or roughly : 128Kb/s which you could just about get with a bonded 56K modem pair or ISDN line about 20 years ago.

    Now, you could argue, why would you need more than that, because with more bandwidth, you would only blow your download limit.

    I would be very interested to see how they calculated their 2.5Mbit. Did they give some sample audience a gigabit pipe and then measure the peak after a month of learning what fun they could have on the internet. Or did they just consider how much bandwidth you need to download a 320×240 youtube clip and add on 10% and round it up a bit?

  6. Not that I would be suspicious but I wonder if the fact that Arqiva piloted LTE in the Preseli Hills in Wales. …. at a max speed of 2.5Mbps. I wonder if there is any commercial reason for issuing a report that said all anyone legally needs is exactly the same as your potential top speed.

  7. What worries me about policy makers believing that such a statement about what people ‘need’ makes any sense, is that it does nothing to account for the future or what people are not doing because of that self imposed limit. I have visited parts of the country recently where even watching a min quality youtube is not possible without pausing it and going off to make a cup of tea until it buffers for 20 mins.

    People talk rhetoric about digital society and digital economy but not what business models, consumer and cultural choices would be available if bandwidth was greater and more reliable all round.

    To me such a thing as a digital society seems like a long way off still as no policy makers think it is an infrastructure decision but rather just a toy that people shouldn’t be allowed to play with too much.

  8. Even if it were true that only pirates have a use for bandwidth (which is patently wrong, viz. home movies to Aunt Janet, high-res pictures), that simply underlines that there’s still not enough LEGAL ways to download movies and such. So only pirate sites and bittorrent deliver the goods.

    Methinks someone needs to get off their lazy fat arses, stop trying to legislate against progress, and bloody well join the twenty-first century. Spotify and BBC iPlayer are a start, but we need more.

  9. This article made me think so thanks.

    My suggestion for anything that I would believe is a commitment to a real digital society, is rather than believe commercial suppliers at home and using them as advisers with their obvious conflicted interests, have a system where they are datahubs within a certain radius across the country. That way for important or interesting stuff, you could always pop into the nearest for a decent connection if you needed it. Not only would they been a technical help, they would become a cultural hub. This is pretty much why south korea ended up with decent speeds. It is as much a cultural thing there as a technical one as a result as lots of people go together to use it.

    So with urgent camera footage, I could send it to an editor by going to the nearest centre rather than being at mercy of where I am which is usually rubbish in most of UK publicly. The problem with say camera footage is that for obvious reasons, you are not in the same place ever. Currently this wastes huge amounts of driving and petrol and delays.

    The whole ‘digital economy / digital society / digital inclusion’ thing is hype really without an actual reliable infrastructure. I don’t think it will happen without a commitment.

  10. I am way to cynical it would seem. I don’t think this has anything to do with what people need or indeed even use. My gut says that this is more to do with Government pledges to deliver a viable broadband product to everyone, and the relevant positioning that is happening over what is the minimum product you can get away with. Lets be honest we know that delivering high speeds or even low speeds to some areas doesn’t make good business.

    If I was a business I would say the most people need is the most I can deliver over my cheapest option. I would use the word legally around the limits I set to imply that anyone using more than this must be a “wrong un” and to allow the Daily Mail to have a few headlines Oh and as a side effect of that you ensure that any dissenting voices can be tarred with the ‘must have something to hide’ in the same way privacy voices are.

    But then again perhaps I really am way to cynical.

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