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Translation Please: The Problem Of Units

At a meeting of cable people in Oregon last week, we got to talking about broadband and “heavy users.” A question was raised: Does the average person have any clue how to know if their usage is light, normal, or heavy?

It reminded me of a technical session I attended earlier this year, at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ first annual Canadian Summit. Terry Shaw, director of network systems for CableLabs and the unofficial “keeper of the numbers” about cable’s broadband usage trends, gets some credit here. He coined the phrase that characterizes one of the flies in the ointment, when attempting to explain broadband usage. He called it “the problem of units.”

“We give speed in Megabits, then tell people they’re consuming in Megabytes,” Shaw said. “It’s inconsistent, and it confuses people.”

Indeed. Try being helpful to a consumer using these simple facts: Eight bits equal a Byte. A thousand bytes make a kilobyte (KB) ; a million bytes make a Megabyte (MB). A billion bytes (or, a thousand Megabytes, or 8 billion bits) make a Gigabyte (GB).


Talk to anyone at Rogers about the three years they spent educating consumers about the weight of, say, a movie, vs. an email. In the physical world, that’s like comparing the weight of a wheelbarrow to the weight of a paperclip. Obvious, right? But it’s digital, and so it gets funky.

Here’s a for-real Rogers example: Its premium package, called “Extreme Plus,” costs $102.95/month. For that, customers get downstream speeds of 18 million bits per second (Mbps), and upstream speeds of 1 million bits per second.

Overages are calculated as follows: Every thousandth megabyte (meaning every Gigabyte) over 95 Gigabytes of usage costs an additional $1.50. By the Megabyte, that’s $0.0015, or a thousandth and a half of a dollar, or, 0.15 cents, or, roughly a penny for every 7 MB. Such a deal!

The point is that it’s confusing. The problem of units is real. Probably best to start assuaging it now: Make it easy for people to learn about their usage, so they can get acclimated to their averages. Explain about megapixel settings on digital cameras, and how that translates when transmitted over broadband. And so on. It’s a start.

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