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How Bandwidth Caps Hurt Your Mac & What Apple Can Do About It

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As a responsible Mac user, I usually feel immune from most Internet threats…except for one. Using my Mac exactly as Apple (s aapl) intends it to be used sometimes renders my Internet connection virtually unusable for up to a month, and costs money to fix.

Could this happen to you? It depends on whether your Internet provider has a bandwidth “metering” policy (or “cap”). These caps are one of the most controversial topics for Internet users in 2009, and can put a significant crimp in your Internet use. Recently, Congressman Eric Massa (D-NY), who represents the Rochester area, introduced the “Broadband Internet Fairness Act” (H.R. 2902) (PDF). Massa got involved soon after Time Warner Cable (s twc) unsuccessfully used Rochester as a test market for metering. Under this bill, the FTC would have veto power over such caps and thus allow them only under certain agreed-upon scenarios.

In my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, the standard level of cable Internet service has a limit of 3GB of bandwidth per month. Overage is charged $2 per GB. Downloading a single movie from the iTunes store will blow through an entire monthly limit, and even the cable company’s most expensive “premium” service only allows 50GB of bandwidth. In 2009, that’s not really much bandwidth at all.

Once you’ve hit your limit, you have to severely restrict usage until the next month, or face a large bill. Your Apple TV remains stale without its new content, your iMac stops downloading podcasts, and your iPod weeps because it’s sick of the same old music you had last month.

Apple is the leader in multimedia content creation; new Mac users are always pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to buy from the iTunes store, or create their own content. A common question we get in our local user group is “I’m not sure what I did wrong, but all of a sudden I have a substantial overage bill from my cable company.” Of course, the user did nothing wrong, other than subscribe to a few podcasts, and perhaps download a new Apple software update and buy some shows with iTunes! The Mac is also blessed with great online backup services like MobileMe, yet when our user group did a presentation on backup strategy, I had to warn novice users to be careful lest their backups end up costing them an arm and a leg in bandwidth overage fees!

While on the surface this appears to be an isolated issue with a few providers, it is not. Bandwidth metering is a growing threat to cable Internet users in many cities. The American Cable Association (ACA) has come out in support of bandwidth caps, and the former chair of the ACA, Patrick Knorr, who implemented bandwidth caps in Lawrence, stated in multiple interviews that flat-rate Internet pricing is an “unsustainable” business model.

Unfortunately, using the Internet normally with bandwidth metering is also unsustainable. When Mac owners are worried about downloading movies, doing backups or performing system updates, that hurts the Apple brand. Apple is continually innovating new ways to make the Mac OS the best Internet operating system, creating a whole ecosystem with iTunes, MobileMe and iLife. All of these great products rely on the ubiquity of the Internet. When Internet providers start making normal Internet use an expensive proposition, Mac users lose.

Apple should lead the way and come out against bandwidth caps. Given that many of the offerings on the iTunes store actually compete with cable TV, Apple should be vigilant that cable companies do not use bandwidth metering as a way to stifle alternative ways of viewing content. Additionally, Apple should add a bandwidth meter to the Airport routers; that way the bandwidth use of entire households can be tracked. If bandwidth caps are inevitable, Apple can arm the consumer with data to monitor their usage and dispute discrepancies with their ISP.

Apple could be an ally for consumers (even the “PC guy” in the commercials would be helped!), while at the same time standing up for its own brand and vision of consumer Internet use. If you disagree with the idea of bandwidth metering, make sure your voice is heard by giving customer feedback to your own Internet provider and writing your member of Congress. I had better end this article now…bytes and bits equal dollars and cents for me, unfortunately!

41 Responses to “How Bandwidth Caps Hurt Your Mac & What Apple Can Do About It”

  1. davidrobertlewis

    I believe there is a way to defeat the cap by changing the MAC address of the machine/router, spoofing IP and playing with ARP. I managed to get extra gigs this month, but was then blocked. Still searching for the better method.

  2. infonollningen

    Wow… i used 4gig (combined up/down) in two days with my iPhone tethered… 3gig in a month!? Thats just sick.
    Here in Sweden I’ve got 10/2 mbit for around 35 bucks a month. No cap, no nothing. Depending on where you live you can get 100/100mbit for around 30 bucks, and ofc no capping…

    USA is a sick country :D

  3. AScott

    There’s also the problem with their $10 monthly “cable transport fee” if you don’t sign up for an additional T.V. package. I asked the tech about it, and he said that it’s to pay for them coming out to block out the remaining channels. The one time they have to, and I pay for it every month.

  4. I live in Lawrence too. The cable company here is quite restrictive and pricey even though they say that you get more. When you look at it, you get more of thing you don’t need and less of things you do. So I switched to ATT DSL where I have the same speed they offer with no bandwidth limit. It’s been so good to me and my Mac!

  5. Here’s my perspective, from two different situations…

    #1: Golde, CO
    Comcast is what everyone uses. They’re relatively fast, reliable, a bit expensive and have a reasonable (250GB) cap. The competition is Qwest, significantly slower, cheaper and uncapped. Qwest may or may not give advertised speeds (or 85% of advertised speeds) depending on system loading; fortunately Comcast gives ’em all the time. So while I’d like to do online backup (which would probably put me over my 250GB limit…I do my BitTorrent elsewhere) I’d much rather have 2 Mbit of upload speed vs. 700k, so I stick with Comcast. I recommended Qwest to friends who use BitTorrent and they’re fine with it.

    #2 – Fredericksburg, TX
    Most places can’t get DSL, and the places that can have one tier – 1.5/512 for $50 per month, minus 15% on speed due to ATM/etc. overhead. So if you’re in town and aren’t a cost-conscious business (cable business rates are e-freaking-xspensive) then you get Time Warner Cable. At the moment, speeds and pricing are decent (768/128 download/upload for $20, 5/384 for $35, 7/512 for $40, 15/2 for $5, top two tiers have download PowerBoost) however they could cap usage at any time and people would have nowhere to go. The only alternatives have lower caps than TWC has proposed (40GB on the top tier). The alternatives are as follows: local overloaded wireless rovider with 25 or 35 GB caps and low speeds, cellular broadband with decent speeds but 5GB caps, satellite internet with high latency, low speeds and caps topping out under 25GB.

    Now I’m as much against disgustingly low bandwidth caps as the next guy, but Lawrence does have competition that’s not capped (AT&T DSL) and SFB’s overages, when purchased in blocks, aren’t too ridiculous (50¢ per GB when you buy a $25 addon).

    Plus, 3GB is more than enough for operating system updates and such, plus light web surfing and e-mail, which that tier is made for. 15GB is enough for some more stuff. 50GB can even do online video in some capacity, etc. Though you have to remember that online video is a competitor to SFB’s cable TV service, so it’s in their interest to make all online video pay-per-view in some way or other.

    As a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, AT&T will eventually launch U-Verse in most of their areas. Granted, they’ve tested caps as well, but AT&T’s caps top out at 150GB on U-Verse tiers, which is greatly preferable to 50GB on SUnflower Broadband. AT&T also has some decent speed tiers on U-Verse (12/1.5 Mbit/s or 18/1.5 iif you want to pay a little extra).

    In short, if you have decent-speed uncapped competition and don’t like SUnflower Broadband’s caps, use the competition.

  6. I’m in Lawrence too, and I just switched from SFB to DSL to avoid the caps.

    So far it hasn’t really bothered me that it’s a little slower.

  7. This is the first time I read about bandwidth cap. In my country Bulgaria we have fast internet (speeds up to 5 megabytes per second) for 10 Euro monthly, without limit. Only mobile operators give us limit, but it’s 750 MB for 12 Euro (iPhone tariff).
    It’s strange… my country is not rich, but maybe our ISPs will try to mimic USA again in the bad way?

  8. Mike B

    My plan – in Oz – is with the company that pretty much sets the cost of access. I get 25G for a month prior to slowdown. Does that bother me? Not much. I generally use around 1/2 of that. I buy a couple of albums from iTunes (but have also swtiched to the same provider as they now sell MP3s which don’t count towards the download limit), download a movie maybe once a month (1-2G) and patch stuff, watch a few YouTube videos and the rest is ad hoc usage.

    When people take issue with capped plans I wonder where the issue lies. You need 250G in a month? So you can watch YouTube in Hi-Def? Hardly anything on there warrants that anyway. So you can torrent movies illegaly? Hardly a reason to demand uncapped plans. If illegal purposes are negated, how much bandwidth can someone actually need? The problem with uncapped plans is that people will simply grab everything and anything without cursory engagement as to whether its needed simply because ‘it’s free.’

    As per the article, it’s an unsustainable model for everyone to simply expect – automagically – for bandwidth to increase since by its very nature there is no single owner for the internet and hence each company simply premises adequate bandwidth to support their needs as a given.

    • kayoone

      Well, many people, me included, watch alot of IPTV for example. I have boxee running on my HTPC to watch alot of internet stuff on my TV in the living room, given much of that is already in HD that adds up nicely. So yes, 25GB per month would definatly be not enough for me, without using illegal stuff.
      Watch 5 apple movie trailers in HD and you already used 1GB of bandwith, leaving you with less than that for the rest of the month.

  9. AScott

    It’s sad to point out that as much as Lawrence fights against corporations, having one company control 2 newspapers, TV, and the internet is more than scary.

  10. I have Comcast cable, never had a problem with them.

    I probably download a gigabyte a day, mostly because of the video podcasts. Seems like a lot to some, maybe, but that may be less than the use of cable tv viewers. If you leave your tv on all the time, that has to eat up a lot of bandwidth. Given what I pay to Comcast, it seems I’m getting a good deal.

    The limit Sunflower imposes means they’re stuck in the numbers from the dial-up days. Back when I had a phone modem, I could not conceive using 3 gb a month.

  11. James Thompson

    I have Sunflower Broadband in Lawrence. The 3GB is on their low-end service (1.5 Mbit service for $14.95/mo) and it’s not capped, you can buy extra transfer for .25 a GB. I have the high-end service for $50 which has advertised speeds of 21Mbit (i usually get between 12-19 Mbit) with 50 GB.

    There is more to this story those of you who have lived somewhere besides Lawrence, KS might want to know. There are 3 providers here and Sunflower is the only one who meters. I had Sunflower’s mid-grade service ($29.95 for 7 Mbit with 15GB) and I hated the metering so I left and went to Lawrence Freenet ($23.98 mo. for 7 Mbit ) who competes against Sunflower as not having any overage charges. When Freenet’s service worked, my best speeds were 256k and average was 128k. I found out later Freenet was throttling my speeds until the end of the month whenever I hit 1 GB of transfer in a month. I left them and went to AT&T who speeds on their high-end service ($44.95 for 6 Mbit) were, on average, about half of what I had with Sunflower’s mid-grade service. I ended up back to Sunflower for better pricing and faster speed. I also forced myself to grow up and be responsible with my transfer habit. I monitor my usage on their website and if I have a heavy month of downloads or if I watch a lot of HD on my Macbook I email and have them add GBs to my account. They have never questioned me doing this and they are always friendly in their response.

    I moved here from Chicago where I had Comcast’s unlimited, slow, expensive, throttled service. I have to say now that I prefer managing my usage and having Sunflower’s cheap, fast, metered service.

    • kshusker

      I live in Lawrence also, and while I love Sunflower’s speed, their bandwidth limits are way too restrictive…their service is like getting the keys to a Porsche that does 120 MPH and then being told you are only allowed to drive it 500 feet before you have to stop……Responsibility is great….I mean, you probably make sure you don’t leave the faucet running, but I bet you don’t obsess over every pint of water when you take a shower either!

      Anyway, I don’t want to rag on the local cable ISP, this guy’s blog post was more general then that, about bandwidth caps around the country…if they end up being a necessary evil, they should be set high enough that regular users don’t run into them (Comcast’s 250 GB limit sounds about right for now, or how about a sliding limit that is the 99th percentile of average users)

      PS…I just checked Sunflower’s web site, and they bill extra bandwidth at $2.00 per gigabyte, not 25 cents … if it was really only 25 cents less people would complain for sure :-)

    • The term “capped” refers to the maximum amount of usage you can have at that price point. Internet Overcharging is a far better, and more accurate term, because it describes the pricing model and what happens when you exceed their arbitrary “cap.”

      A $2.00/GB overlimit fee is outrageous. If you plan to go over, you can buy one of their “bandwidth packs” in pre-set increments, but that pre-supposes you:

      a) know you are going to go over before you do;
      b) will consume all of that extra pack to avoid letting any go to waste from being unconsumed.

      Anyway you look at it, that sunflower is going to cost you more than a dozen roses in other communities.

      Lawrence Free-net is a wi-fi proposition at this point, which has been stuck with older technology and signal issues. It’s not really a comparable competitor in any meaningful way, at least until it can upgrade its technology. AT&T is currently deploying DSL in Lawrence, which is always dependent on distance from the central switching office (or remote equipment nearby).

      If you sit around and read e-mail and look at web pages and do little more, any plan from any provider is going to be fine. If you start getting interested in transferring files or watching a lot of online video, Sunflower may be faster, but it’s a whole lot more restrictive and potentially obscenely expensive.

      Comcast does not throttle speeds — they were slapped by the FCC for trying a few years ago. They have a 250GB maximum usage limit, and informally tell customers if they want more than that, buy a second account. Compared to the egregious pricing of Sunflower, that’s online nirvana.

      I am sure any company will be friendly and responsive to a request to add gigabyte packs to your account, because they aren’t free. That’s money in their pocket.

      Should AT&T bring U-verse to Lawrence, they’ll mow down the sunflower at current pricing and terms.

  12. iiNet in Australia has a cap but only slows you down once you’re over it. They also have “Freezone” which allows you to download iTunes content, OS updates and a bunch of other similar sorts of stuff without it counting towards the download limit.

  13. Champs

    A sensible policy would put limits on abusive users, not be abusive to its users. ISPs should be looking at user bandwidth distribution and pruning the customers who sit in the (let’s say 99th) percentile month after month, independent of some specific cap number, neutralizing the impact of large system updates, etc. by affecting a large number of users’ usage equally.

  14. Australian ISPs have all had monthly caps for ages – usually speed limited to dialup speeds when you hit it. Plans vary from less than a gig a month to over 100GB (I have a 120GB / month cap, which costs me AU$100 a month ~ $US80)

  15. Vidlearn

    There is a definite conflict of interest in having the cable companies also be the major broadband providers. Services like iTunes, Hulu and NetFlix compete directly with cable. Eventually you could watch all your favorite shows and turn off cable. That is a serious threat to cable. Thus the cable companies are all coming up with all these usage cap schemes, designed to kill off competition from the internet. A few years ago the ISPs tried to get Net Neutrality passed thru Congress which would have stopped these anti-competitive measures, but the cable companies were able to defeat it.

  16. Rashid

    When Comcast tried to do this, they set their cap at 250 GB, which I think is pretty reasonable — I can’t believe there is an ISP anywhere on Earth that would set the cap at a level as low as 3 or even 50. Your ISP should be ashamed of itself…they must be one of those small-town ISPs with a monopoly because I don’t think anyone could get away with that in a large metro area.

    Unlike a lot of folks here, I don’t oppose these “caps” on philosophical grounds, I can see where an ISP might not want to have some guy running the world’s largest file server on their network — but, the caps need to be set high enough that normal users are not screwed over — 250 to 500 would be pretty OK in my opinion. It is kind of worrisome though what your ISP says about the attitude of cable companies — that they would lower caps to ridiculous levels if they can get away with it.

    • I agree on reasonable caps, but even with a cap at 250, the subscriber should be empowered to audit the meter. That way when the ISP says you are over, you’ll have proof otherwise.

      The fact that the ISP bother meters and measures usage is a conflict of interest.

      Apple might help us even the playing field a bit

    • doublesix

      Try living in South Africa. Telkom is a fixed line/DSL monopoly. I’ve lived with 3 gig cap for years. Telkom are asking the independent telecommunications authority for all-round increases – but not DSL. Surprise. The cap is being increased from 3 to 5 gig at no extra charge on August 1. South Africa does not yet have access to the iTunes store so I am spared that. But upgrades are costly. Today, I upgraded my old G4 466 with a bunch of Mac upgrades, Quicktime, Security, iTunes etc. Took hours to download more than 4 gig. But, hey, its the last day of the month. Clean slate again tomorrow/

  17. spoonbender

    Wow, thats really bad. Three gigs a month. Even if your a legit bit-torrent user, you would be dead in the water after a couple of hours.

  18. Same in France, no bandwidth caps, for 30 euros you should have 20 Mbit download / 800Kbit upload, mine come with free phone landline to most countries in the world.

    Mobile broadband is still a mess, but You can get the iPhone from three official providers, I will update my none iPhone contract to a iPhone 3GS contract in paying once 149 Euros and then 18 Euros for 1 hour call + 15 Euros for full iPhone use(with tethering), included free country wide access to WiFi hotspots.

  19. kayoone

    in germany we dont have bandwidth caps..DSL ranges from 2-50Mbit uncapped…of course there are some entry level dsl offers with traffic limits, but every provider also has uncapped plans.
    Mobile broadband (3G/HSDPA) is capped though :/ hope that changes sometime soon.

  20. That’s nothing. I pay 80 dollars a month for the premium 17 GBs a month… I have an apple TV and it is useless unless I rent and rip(which I believe is illegal….Terrible…..I am moving back to Lawrence next month. Sad to see this is the case. Although, 50 GB will seem like heaven compared to what I have been living with the last 2 years unless it is over 80 dollars a month..

    When and where is the MUG in Lawrence. Would love the opportunity to participate. I have been a Apple/Mac user since 79….

  21. Count Pollen

    Same in Belgium. 30 GB. extra usage is not billed by default, but continues with a smallband connection (128 kbps instead of 6 Mbit). My current provider also counts upload as bandwidth usage… so i am doomed.
    I still sometimes manage to dl 180 GB at smallband, just to get back at them :)
    In the Netherlands (where I am originally coming from), there is a “fair use policy”, meaning, no real data limits untill abuse becomes obvious (> 300 GB for several months I think). Much faster networks there as well. In “Nieuwland” 50 Megabit / s download and uploaqd is guaranteed!


  22. justin

    Yeah, I’m from Lawrence and refuse to use Sunflower’s services for their insanely debilitating bandwidth cap. I use DSL instead; It’s a little slower, but no bandwidth caps.

  23. Anonymous

    With a Mac OS X 10.5.7 update coming in at 449MB we have a lot to worry about, constant Windows updates and virus definitions are a must have as well. Make it a security argument and we’ll win.

    Good call on the electricity company, but then they wouldn’t be able to charge my grandmother who just checks her e-mail $40 a month. Business and the customer is always going to want more, but for utilities where it costs millions of infrastructure to get into the game it’s not a business where market based economics are always fair. If a company comes in and is successful- it’s be a couple of months till they’re bought out, and near monopolized once again.

    With technology your money goes further every day, as users will be wanting more bandwidth it will be cheaper for companies to deliver more bandwidth over existing lines. Dial-up to high speed connections, case in point. Tethering is coming and could change their game, but it might be for the worse.

    Your ISP should be careful, if they suck more than the government would providing it, votes will be more socialist- and they’ll be out of the job. In the past, in some Provinces in Canada there was ‘State’ run utilities and it went pretty well. They got sold off so the Government could make a quick buck and now everyone pays more. This is one thing Soviet Russia might be able to do a better job of. Sweden isn’t doing to bad for itself.

    Bring on an essential services delivered without competition debate!

    • Yup. That’s for the basic user. Setting up a new Mac with all the updates takes half their bandwidth for the month, so I usually just install it manually for my clients.

      Also remember that’s 3 GB combined upload and download.

  24. Chris A

    Wow, your ISP’s premium service only allows 50 GB in bandwidth…that is crazy, do you live in Soviet Russia, where bandwidth is a precious resource of the State, and must be doled out in very small amounts to the proletariat or something?

    Seriously, though, if ISPs are worried about this stuff, why don’t they treat bandwidth like the electricity company treats power, just pay for what you use, at a reasonable rate?