The Boy Who Cried Bandwidth
Two weeks ago, Adam told the story of our colleague Glenn Fleishman’s potential bandwidth disaster, in which Glenn gave away a free PDF version of our book Real World Adobe GoLive 6 only to be faced with the possibility of excess bandwidth charges running as high as $15,000. As Glenn’s office-mate and co-author of the book, I’ve had a front-row seat to watch the process of determining the final damage. After a lot of uncertainly and a great outpouring of support from TidBITS readers and GoLive users, the punchline has arrived: the charges are zero.
Running the Numbers — Level 3, Glenn’s hosting company, charges based on the busiest hour of the month, excluding a certain percentage (about 5 percent) to avoid charging for fluke peak hours. According to Glenn’s logs and preliminary information from the provider, it looked as though the bill could run as high as $15,000 or possibly higher, due to the sustained download rate of 10,000 retrievals over 36 hours. (If the company charged on pure bytes, not bandwidth, the charges would not have been out of the stratosphere.) Level 3 doesn’t have reporting software that makes it easy to understand the usage numerically, and they were unwilling to give final numbers until, ironically, April 1.
So how did Glenn squeak by with charges of zero? The provider said that the cutoff point where excessive bandwidth charges would have started to hit was just above the point at which Glenn pulled the file. If the download had been accessible for just a few more hours, Glenn estimates his bill could have run from $2,000 to $5,000, based on the information Level 3 provided.
Passing the Hat — Thanks to the generosity of nearly 200 separate donors, Glenn raised about $1,800 between 20-Mar-03 and 01-Apr-03. As noted previously in TidBITS and on the book’s Web site, he promised to donate any excess to Project Gutenberg, the grandfather of all electronic book projects on the Internet. Because the bandwidth bill turned out to be zero, Glenn sent email to donors offering refunds via PayPal and informing them that they could request cancellations via the Amazon.com Honor System. So far, only one person has asked for a refund, ironically due to his own unexpected excess bandwidth charges that cropped up last month. A hefty check, including an additional donation from Glenn, will help Project Gutenberg carry out its good work.
Does Glenn regret the fund-raising? "No. If I hadn’t struck while the iron was hot and the worst-case situation had turned out to be true, I doubt many donations would have come in," he said. "Because I had the backup plan of a charity, suggested by Adam, instead of Level 3 receiving the cash, a good cause will get an unexpected donation."
Lessons Learned — It’s tempting to apply Glenn’s experience to a broader context: Is electronic publishing still not a viable mechanism? On the contrary, Glenn’s experience suggests that it can be more effective than one might expect, provided you have realistic expectations.
Offering something for free was a more powerful attraction than Glenn anticipated. Further, he found that a complete book is worth more than a full chapter. In previous experiments, making limited content available always resulted in a modest number of downloads, such as when we provided a 128-page excerpt of the book for free. Many of those downloads were hosted on a bandwidth-restricted site, too, such as in our office (with a 768 Kbps SDSL line). Distributing the entire book seemed too good to be true, and people jumped on the download before it went away – which it did, though only briefly.
Distributing bandwidth turned out to be an important strategy. Using many sites that aren’t charged for bandwidth, such as the Info-Mac Archive and Bare Bones Software, who also hosted the PDF, has so far resulted in at least another 6,000 downloads (that Glenn can track directly) of the book.
But bandwidth aside, Glenn’s experience reinforces the importance of never underestimating the kindness of others. "It’s hard to be a stranger when you’re on the Internet all the time," he said, "and hundreds of individuals viewed me and my problem most kindly. Thank you all."