There is something counterintuitive about promoting new ways to get entertainment on the Internet while telling customers they can't use more than a certain
amount of data.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983
How to figure your monthly Internet usage
March 7, 2010
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard
Nothing is likely to scare a typical computer fan as much as the threat of a cap on Internet usage. Many of
us practically live on the Internet, and the notion of limiting the amount of data we can send back and forth in a month is
You're probably using metered, or capped, Internet service if you subscribe to a mobile broadband provider.
Mobile broadband service uses a small modem that plugs into your laptop or into a mobile router. Typically, you pay $60 a month
for a maximum of 5 gigabytes of data.
But home Internet users seem to be heading in the same direction. Comcast, the primary cable Internet
provider in many areas, already limits Internet usage, telling subscribers they will be cut off if they exceed an arbitrary limit
two times. Time Warner planned to put a cap on Internet usage in some areas including Rochester, but backed away from the plan
after protests from customers and local leaders.
Internet providers like the idea of capping usage for two reasons. Caps can make their service fairer to
all customers by blocking excessive downloads that clog the network, and those who exceed their caps can be charged a great deal
extra for service. This amounts to free money for ISPs.
But there is something counterintuitive about promoting new ways to get entertainment on the Internet -- by
using Hulu, for example, to stream TV shows to your home computer -- while telling customers they can't use more than a certain
amount of data.
A few nights of watching TV on your laptop through Hulu would bring you up to your monthly broadband cap of 5 GB,
for example. While home Internet caps are usually higher, what we often consider "normal" Internet usage (downloading music from
the iTunes Store or sharing photos by e-mail) could be severely curtailed when caps are in place.
What's needed is a simple way to measure how much data you use per month. Cable providers sometimes provide
a Web page that logs each customer's transfer totals -- call your ISP to find out if your plan has such a feature -- but you can
easily track usage yourself with data-usage software utilities.
For Windows users, an ideal way is the free ShaPlus Bandwidth Meter, from www.shaplus.com. It installs in the System Tray (near the clock) and can be set to log monthly totals. Mac
users have Net Monitor, from http://homepage.mac.com/rominar/net.html. It costs $10. Net Monitor can be customized to show many different
Both utilities performed well on my computers, never getting in the way. In my own tests, I was surprised
at how little data I used most of the time, but I also saw spikes in usage when I was doing computer updates, downloading new
software and watching TV shows at the same time.