Late last year, NBN Co (the body responsible for rolling out Australia’s National Broadband Network) released more detail on its wholesale products and pricing. You can download their Product and Pricing Overview here. The pricing component that I wanted to analyse in this post is NBN Co’s additional charge for “Connectivity Virtual Circuit” (CVC) capacity.
CVC is bandwidth that ISPs will need to purchase from NBN Co, charged at the rate of $20 (ex-GST) per Mbps per month. Note that this CVC is on top of the backhaul and international transit required to pipe all those interwebs into your home. And just like backhaul and international transit, if an ISP doesn’t buy enough CVC from NBN Co to cover peak utilisation, its customers will experience a congested service.
The problem with the CVC tax, priced as it is by NBN Co, is that it punishes small players. By my calculations, an ISP of (say) 1000 subscribers will need to spend proportionally a lot more on CVC than an ISP of 1,000,000 subscribers if they want to provide a service that delivers the speeds it promises.
Here comes the statistics.
Consider NBN Co’s theoretical 12 megabit service with 10GB of monthly quota example that they use in the document I linked to above. 10GB per month, at 12Mbps gives you 6,827 seconds (a bit under 2 hours) at full speed before you’re throttled off. There’s 2,592,000 seconds in a 30-day month, so if I choose a random moment in time there is a 6827/2592000 = 0.263% chance that I’ll find you downloading at full speed.
That’s on average. The probability would naturally be higher during peak times. But let’s assume in this example that our theoretical ISP has a perfectly balanced network profile (no peak or off-peak periods). It doesn’t affect the point I’ll labour to make.
A mid-sized ISP with (let’s say) 100,000 subscribers can expect, on average, to have 100,000*0.263% = only 263 of those customers downloading at full speed simultaneously at any particular second. However, the Binomial distribution tells us that there’s a relatively small, but still statistically significant (at the alpha=0.05 level) probability that there could be 290 or more customers downloading at the same time.
So a quality ISP of 100,000 subscribers will plan to buy enough CVC bandwidth to service 263 customers at any one time. But a statistician would advise the ISP to buy enough CVC bandwidth to service 290 subscribers, an additional (290-263)/263 = 10% , or find itself with a congested service about one day in every 20.
This additional “burst headroom”, as a percentage, increases as the size of the ISP decreases. From above, an ISP of 10,000 can expect to have 26 customers downloading simultaneously at any random moment in time. But there’s a statistically significant chance this could be 35+. This requires them to buy an additional (35-26)/26=33% in CVC over and above what was expected to cover peak bursts.
The table below summarises, for ISPs of various sizes, how much additional CVC would need to be purchased over and above the expected amount, to provide an uncontended service 95%+ of the time.
As you can see, things only really start to settle down for ISPs larger than 100,000 subscribers. Any smaller than that and your relative cost of CVC per subscriber per month is disproportionally large.