Broadband 101 is meant to be a “gentle introduction to broadband” for the non-technical reader. In this third chapter, I’ll talk about the sometimes severe usage limits that are placed on broadband users by service providers.

Broadband isn’t just about speed

When evaluating broadband internet access alternatives, speed is the primary consideration. The service plan’s data cap is another. Sometimes called download threshold (satellite providers like this term), fair usage policy or fair access policy, these are all limits placed on the amount of data (web pages, emails, pictures, music, software, whatever) that the user can download. I will use just the term data cap.

Data caps are limits imposed by the service provider on the amount of data you can download in a day or month. To evaluate data caps and how they can affect your internet usage, we’ll have to go over some new techno jargon.

How do we measure data?

We already know data speeds are measured in Mega bits per second, abbreviated Mbps. The terminology for measuring the amount of data is slightly different. The amount of data is usually measured in Mega Bytes, abbreviated MB. In case your wondering, 1 Byte is 8 bits. We’re not going to do any converting here though, so you can forget I told you that.

There is one other wrinkle. Data is also often measured in Giga Bytes, abbreviated GB. The conversion here is fairly easy, 1000 MB = 1 GB. So, if you have 200 MB you’ve got 0.2 GB. Likewise, if you have 1.5 GB, you have 1500 MB. To keep everything consistent, I’ll talk just about GB in this chapter.

What do data caps do?

Data caps all have the same goal, to limit the amount of data used by the user. Limiting users data usage in and of itself is not bad or evil. Networks are a shared resource with a limited capacity. The problem is how low some of the limits are and how the caps are implemented.

Before I dive into the actual caps different providers impose, You need to get an idea how much data the average broadband user consumes. Luckily, Cicso (the company that makes the high tech equipment that runs the internet) has done that for us. They found that, worldwide, the average broadband user consumes 14.9 GB of data per month1.

I’ve summarized the data caps for common provider plans in Webster Township in the chart below. All of these caps are presented as GB of data in one month. That way you can compare them to each other. The average broadband usage rate of 14.9 GB per month is indicated on the chart as well. You will note that that some types of plans, like DSL, are not on the chart. This is because I could not find any stated cap on the provider’s web site or in their usage agreements. I suspect these providers do have caps, but they probably do not affect the majority of users.

Typical Data Caps by Service Typ

We see from the chart that the lowest caps are found primarily in satellite and wireless (3G and 4G cellular) plans. Unfortunately these are only plans available to many rural users.

Ouch! I hit my cap!

How do the providers “enforce” their caps? Satellite providers will considerably reduce the users connection speed when they hit their cap. They will still have internet connectivity, but it will be at dial up speeds. The wireless plans take a different approach. They don’t limit the subscriber’s speed when they hit the cap, they charge them an overage fee.

How much can the overage charges run? If we take Verizon wireless as an example, they have two wireless data plans, a $50 per month plan with a 5 GB cap and a $80 per month plan with a 10 GB cap. Both plans have a $10 per GB overage charge. So, the average broadband user, consuming 14.9 GB of data, would pay $150 per month with the 5 GB plan and $130 per month with the 10 GB plan. For residential broadband service this is an astronomical charge.

The next logical thought is that the user can limit what they do on line to reduce their usage. This is true. The problem with this logic, however, is that the user no longer truly has broadband access if he cannot use the resources on the internet. It is like having a Corvette, but you can only put one gallon of gas in the tank per month. Do you really have a high performance sports car you can take out and drive, or do you have an expensive car that looks really cool in your garage?

Conclusions

Data caps are stated in most broadband users service agreements. For Cable, DSL and WiMax users, they are generally not a concern as they are relatively high. For the rural customer on wireless or satellite, however, they are a serious concern. Those users are either forced to not use the resources on the internet to stay under the cap or to pay high overage fees. In either case, it is clear that these types of plans do not provide real broadband internet access.

  1. “Cisco Visual Networking Index: Usage”, cicso.com, October 25, 2010 <http://www.cisco.com/en/US/solutions/collateral/ns341/ns525/ns537/ns705/Cisco_VNI_Usage_WP.pdf>  []