Burstable Internet Connections — Are They of Any Value?


A burstable Internet connection conjures up the image of a super-charged Internet reserve, available at your discretion during a moment of need, like pushing the gas pedal to the floor to pass an RV on a steep grade. Americans find comfort knowing that they have that extra horsepower at their disposal. The promise of power is ingrained in our psyche, and is easily tapped into when marketing an Internet service. However, if you stop for a minute, and think about what is a bandwidth burst, it might not be a feature worth paying for in reality.

Here are some key questions to consider:

  • Is a burst one second, 10 seconds, or 10 hours at a time? This might seem like a stupid question, but it is at the heart of the issue. What good is a 1-second burst if you are watching a 20-minute movie?
  • If it is 10 seconds, then how long do I need to wait before it becomes available again?
  • Is it available all of the time, or just when my upstream provider(s) circuits are not busy?
  • And overall, is the burst really worth paying for? Suppose the electric company told you that you had a burstable electric connection or that your water pressure fluctuated up for a few seconds randomly throughout the day? Is that a feature worth paying for? Just because it’s offered doesn’t necessarily mean it’s needed or even that advantageous.

While the answers to each of these questions will ultimately depend on the circumstances, they all serve to point out a potential fallacy in the case for burstable Internet speeds: The problem with bursting and the way it is marketed is that it can be a meaningless statement without a precise definition. Perhaps there are providers out there that lay out exact definitions for a burstable connection, and abide by those terms. Even then we could argue that the value of the burst is limited.

What we have seen in practice is that most burstable Internet connections are unpredictable and simply confuse and annoy customers. Unlike the turbo charger in your car, you have no control over when you can burst and when you can’t. What sounded good in the marketing literature may have little practical value without a clear contract of availability.

Therefore, to ensure that burstable Internet speeds really will work to your advantage, it’s important to ask the questions mentioned above. Otherwise, it very well may just serve as a marketing ploy or extra cost with no real payoff in application.

Update: October 1, 2009

Today a user group published a bill of rights in order to nail ISPs down on what exactly they are providing in their service contracts.
ISP claims of bandwidth speed.

I noticed that  in the article, the bill of rights, requires a full disclosure about the speed of the providers link to the consumers modem. I am not sure if this is enough to accomplish a fixed minimus speed to the consumer.  You see, a provider could then quite easily oversell the capacity on their swtiching point. The point where they hook up to a backbone of other providers.  You can not completely regulate speed across the Internet, since by design providers hand off or exchange traffic with other providers.  Your provider cannot control the speed of your connection once it is off their network.

Posted by Eli Riles, VP of sales www.netequalizer.com.

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