Blog Post

How Bandwidth Caps Force Us All to Become Network Cops

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

This isn’t a post about an industry issue so much as it is a post about my personal experience with ISP bandwidth caps — which are commonplace in Canada, where I live — and how easily they can turn you into a network administrator and traffic cop, whether you like it or not. It all started simply enough a couple of weeks ago: I got a notice from my broadband provider, Rogers Communications, that I had hit my bandwidth cap for the month, which is 95 GB. Like some other providers, Rogers pops up a notice at the top of a browser window letting you know that you are either getting close to passing or have passed your limit.

No big deal, I thought — I’ve hit the limit before, although not often. I download movies and music from time to time, and I have three teenage daughters who also download music, TV shows and so on. I figured someone had just gone a little overboard, and since it was close to the end of the month, I thought it wasn’t anything to be worried about. The next day, however, I went online and checked my usage (Rogers has an online tool that shows daily usage), and it said that I had used 121 GB more than my allotted amount for the month. In other words, I had used more than 100 GB in less than two days.

I just about spit my coffee all over the computer screen. How could I possibly have used that much? According to Rogers, I owed $181 in overage charges. Luckily there is a maximum extra levy of $50 a month (just think what it would cost if I was subject to usage-based billing). When I called a technician, he said my wireless network was open — that is, unlocked. I recalled having switched routers after one went bad, and thinking (stupidly, I admit) that leaving the Wi-Fi unlocked wasn’t such a big deal. I live in a residential community and everyone has wireless networks; I figured the odds of someone piggybacking on my network were slim.

So that was it, I figured: someone had downloaded a ton of movies or whatever using our wireless. So I immediately set up WPA-2 encryption, the highest level my router allows, and set a strong 64-character password.

Fixed, right? That was a week or so ago. The other day, I got another popup from my provider, saying I was over my limit for the month again. This was just six days into the new month, and I’d already somehow used up 95 GB of data. What could possibly have happened, I wondered. Had someone cracked my wireless password already? Had one of my machines been hacked and turned into a zombie on some spammer’s bot-net? I reset my router’s password and checked the firewall for suspicious activity but couldn’t see any.

Just to be on the safe side, I logged out of Windows on two machines (I have seven in the house, including laptops, desktops but not including iPads and smartphones) and booted into Ubuntu, which is less prone to attacks.

I asked my daughters again about whether they had been downloading anything, and also my niece, who has been living with us. All had denied doing anything more than watching some YouTube videos or downloading some songs. Oh wait, said one daughter — I did download some episodes of a TV show the other day using uTorrent. How big a file, I asked? Turns out it was 13 GB, and uTorrent was probably uploading for days as well. And she had been using Frostwire as well, which is a file-sharing service that connects to Limewire and BitTorrent networks.

At this point, it looks like uTorrent and/or Frostwire was the problem. They likely kept running in the background for days, even though my daughter said she was sure she had closed the programs. And Frostwire also has one specific feature that can make this very painful from a bandwidth-usage perspective: it searches for what it calls “ultra-peers,” which is any computer with a really fast Internet connection. Then it turns that into a super-node and starts using it to share as many files as it can.

My daughter was hugely apologetic. She thought she had closed the programs, and I didn’t think to check until several days had gone by — plus I had been convinced it was someone hogging the Wi-Fi or that a computer had been hacked and turned into a zombie, which is surprisingly common. Mixed in with my frustration was a sense of embarrassment: I am the IT guy for the household, the guy who supposedly knows how computers and networks function, and who keeps everything running smoothly. How could this have happened on my watch? It was like burning the casserole, but ten times worse.

In addition to making me more determined to keep an even closer eye on every computer (all seven of them), this whole process reinforced for me just how much we have grown used to having theoretically unlimited Internet access, and how bandwidth caps — even large ones — effectively force us all to become network administrators and system cops, running firewalls and tracking bytes throughout our homes. Increasingly, that means tracking that usage on multiple desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, wireless music players, streaming video boxes and other devices that all have Internet connections, IP addresses and wireless connections. Welcome to our broadband future.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr usersRay Dehler and Ryan Franklin

49 Responses to “How Bandwidth Caps Force Us All to Become Network Cops”

  1. For you who believe that this is an issue of us needing to monitor our own usage, that is completely false and is the view propagated the key ISP providers in the industry whose interest lies in stifling competition and sapping customers dry. The speed of the internet and the amount of content it moves grows by 40 to 50 percent annually. All of the great ideas that get transmitted by internet(and in the modern world, by videos, and sound files, as well as numerous other web based applications such as cloud computing) are going to be stifled by UBB and already are.

    The fastest growing economies in the world are growing at that rate for a reason: charging on bandwidth speed, not on data usage(which is in the cost of pennies to the ISP) allows them to move ideas faster and grow their economies faster(while still giving the company a profit margin, and charging fair prices to the customer). My advice to anyone who pays for usage based billing should contest and disqualify it at every opportunity(and switch providers if they dont); it is nothing short of a ripoff by companies who have foolishly over-invested in television(which now competes with netflix, youtube, etc) while not upgrading their own networks for the last decade while ignoring the increasingly necessary use of the internet for everything from commerce to keeping in touch with relatives.

  2. Haha, no offence intended, it’s just in South Africa(Where I stay) the average cap is 5gig’s at an average speed of 384kbps. 20gig’s is concidered a large cap.

    Though more companies are now offering uncapped options that helps quite a bit.

    Regards, Eric

  3. tigerjuju

    Good story. However, the source of bandwidth hog is merely an educated guess. Even for a seasoned IT professionals, it is not easy to find the cause with HARD SUPPORTING EVIDENCE, let along for average consumers. I see problems in a house where families/friends will be second guessing each other for being the source of the bandwidth hog. Even if you believe others are not lying, how do you know they simply did some things without knowing the consequence? I have a father who loves using his laptop, who unfortunately don’t always know what he did. Whenever his computer become unstable or infected by virus, he always swore he did not do anything even when he is the only person using that laptop.

  4. Edwin G

    You are one real bad Tech/IT Guy.

    1. You leave a wi-fi open an think its ok. I am hoping you or anyone else in your house did not have share full of family pics and videos.

    2. You use a wireless router supplied by the cable company (cheapest one on the market for sure)

    3. You justify the use of bit torrent to download content that doesnt belong to you off sites that are sure to give you more than just the content because you dont know where to buy them

    4. You try to blame your mistakes on your service provider.

    Yes bandwidth caps are not ideal, there is always the more expensive all you can eat option. In the US atleast 45$ will give you a bandwidth limited connection 100$ will give you all you can eat. IF you really want to watch that many movies maybe you should get the more expensive option.

    You have to be responsible for your network. No way out of it.

  5. Andrew McAllister

    Forget Rogers or Bell, they are rapists. Change your service to a open service such as acanac as they support the open internet and let you have a unlimited cap. The more people that change over the better it will be for us all. Its time to show these big cats that the Canadian public wont take their S#!% no more!!

  6. nick13b

    well honestly i would suspect that somebody in your house is downloading something more than they are saying…..When I was younger id always lie about what I was really using the internet for….

  7. DoesItReallyMatter

    I had issues with rogers a few years back before they implemented the bandwidth caps. They said i was doing a lot of uploading, which i never did. i had one of those basic lines at the time like 5Mb down i believe and according to there stats they said i was uploading over 50Gb in a day, which wasn’t even possible on the lines we had which was capped at 98KB. I know for sure it wasn’t me who was doing the uploading, because eventually i had unplugged my modem for 72 hours and after i checked the usage for the last 3 days it showed that i had used up about 130GB. In the end it turned out that someone had cloned my modem, no idea how they did that. Final note, caps are horrible, we are suppose to be moving forward with technology, not being held back or restricted by it!

  8. I’ve had the exact problem recently at my mother’s house. My brother had returned from a year long trip abroad and had settled in to my mother’s house until he could find himself a new place to stay. The first month since his arrival, the cap was reached within a matter of days. No one in that house is technically savvy, so the internet usage was just skyrocketing. Turns out my genius brother was not only downloading full tv shows off the internet, but also wasn’t closing his P2P applications, causing them to upload monstrous amounts of data as well.

    All that to say that while network security is a big deal, most problems arise from inexperienced computer users within the network itself. I have since taught everyone in that household how to properly close applications like utorrent/frostwire as well as teaching them how bandwidth works (download/upload). I asked many people I know if they knew how it worked; a vast majority thought that bandwidth was only used while downloading an actual file.

    Hopefully people will read articles like this and learn how to properly manage bandwidth. I can only imagine how many customer service reps for internet companies are getting their ear chewed off for customer mistakes.

  9. MrDisco

    While I agree with the sentiment of this article (bandwidth caps suck), I have to really question anyone who calls themselves an “IT Guy” but leaves their network wide open (“what me worry?”) and doesn’t know what apps are installed on their own devices. Really that gives real “IT Guys” a bad rep.

    And it would be wholly refreshing if people just came out and said yes I’m pirating illegal material and as such I need large bit caps.

  10. Did you think to wonder why only bandwidth devoted to your Internet access was counted against your cap and not the (unlimited) bandwidth devoted to your TV programing? And did you verify the accuracy of your provider’s bandwidth meter or just assume it was accurate?

  11. Im switching my account over to a business account because of the caps. Its so easy to hit comcast 250gb cap just by initiating a cloud backup! As far as I can tell FIOS does not have a hard cap (yet)

  12. I guess I am fortunate that my broadband only includes traffic gained during the day against the bandwidth allowance leaving it a free for all at night. So i just schedule all downloads and backups for the night so it doesn’t burn up all the allotment.

  13. “Welcome to our broadband future.”

    So a company does something you do not like and you continue to give them money?! You (as in, anyone who chooses to do this) have brought this onto yourselves by continuing to use a greedy service and then you whine about it and then you say ‘Welcome to our broadband future’ like you have no choice! Well, you DO have choices! Quit your whining and stand up with those who don’t just rollover. If you want to be a slave to the rich, go ahead. But quit your god damn whining about!!!

  14. I’d rather they just move to full out 95th percentile if this is the direction they want to go. This is the worst of both worlds – you have no cost savings if you use less than the cap. But you have a penalty if you go over it.

  15. swampthing81

    This is just the beginning wait till all service providers have a hold on you with caps then they will start to lower them till the customers cry uncle and we might even see a pay per use model in the next 10 years. Enjoy your future while you can still use it. I’m just going to cancel my cell phone and internet and buy a motorcycle and play outside.

  16. Austin R

    I feel sorry for your neighbors — sharing bandwidth over your cable connection must suck. Your decision to download large amounts of video is undoubtedly degrading the experience.

    A question: Would you be more selective in which programs you downloaded if you had to pay “by-the-bit”?

  17. John Maas

    “At this point, it looks like uTorrent and/or Frostwire was the problem. They likely kept running in the background for days, even though my daughter said she was sure she had closed the programs.”
    More to the point, it looks like leaving all the computers on 24/7 may contribute to the problem. Or are uTorrent and Frostwire set to open at startup?

  18. In case you were wondering, Brett, the shows my daughter was watching were Japanese anime in the original Japanese — those are very difficult to come by. Was my daughter “pirating” them? Perhaps. If we could have figured out how to get them legitimately, I’m sure we would have been happy to pay for them.

    • I’m sure once you found the easy way to pirate those shows, you didn’t bother to find a legal way to access them. I’m saying “you” because you said “we”, but given that you sounded surprise that your daughter downloaded a 10GB file off torrents, it looks like you had very little say in the matter before you used 100GB in one day.

    • pgattocpa

      “If we could have figured out how to get them legitimately, I’m sure we would have been happy to pay for them.”

      Wow, that is a “great” lesson to teach your daughters and niece. If you can’t get something legally, it’s okay to steal it.

      You are completely disingenuous even when you say that “perhaps” it was piracy.

      Just cowboy up and say, “Yes, we are stealing it. We wanted it, did not want to go to the expense and difficulty of obtaining it legally, so we are just taking it. In fact, I did not even want to be a good parent and teach my daughter a lesson about not always being able to have what I want.”

      I am in no way perfect and I have made plenty of mistakes with my own daughters, but teaching them that theft, even digital theft, is okay sure ain’t one of them.

      At least you always have the opportunity to reconsider . . .

    • Jeffrey

      Don’t listen to these assholes.A great majority of Japanese anime is very hard to come by in the US, as only a small portion is ever officially imported, copyrighted, trademarked, subbed, dubbed, and released. If the anime she was downloading isn’t sold in the US, then she isn’t violating US copyright law, and I doubt either of these two jerks would want you to fly to Japan, buy a DVD, and fly back. They’re just too quick to jump on the piracy assault bandwagon as soon as they hear the word “torrent”.

    • Anne Noid

      I’d have to go with pgattocpa on this one. I’m just finishing cleaning over 200 pieces of malware from a workstation that was used by a numbskull as a limewire “receptacle”. Trojans, bots, viruses — you name it. These were some of nastiest infections I have ever seen, respawning and self-replicating. Had to use a boot rescue disk multiple times to even begin making a dent.

      You’ve been running an open access point on a high speed connection, you have users that have multiple torrent applications installed, and you don’t see the issues with that? Your next article should be “My machines and network got PWNED and my identity now belongs to some dude(s) sunbathing on Lake Baikal on my dime”.

      You’re crying about being capped at 100GB a month, and you’re complaining about having to clean up some of your/your kids (unwise and illegal) practices? Try Hughesnet sometime — 500 MB/day MAX (on the fastest plan), then you’re throttled back to sub-dialup for 24 hours unless you buy a $12.00 token to reset your threshold.

      And to those commenters who are complaining that you need to upload/download massive files for your business and you can’t get by on your home plan, buy a business plan. The asymetrical upload/download of a home plan has got to be biting you on the upload, anyway. If your business can’t afford that, maybe you should consider a different business model…

    • pgattocpa

      @ Jeffrey

      You stated, “If the anime she was downloading isn’t sold in the US, then she isn’t violating US copyright law.”

      1) Did you pay attention that Mathew lives in Canada?

      2) Do you know Canadian copyright law?

      3) Do you know Japanese copyright law?

      4) Do you know what agreements the Canadian and Japanese governments have with respect to honoring each others copyright laws?

      You also wrote, “I doubt either of these two jerks would want you to fly to Japan, buy a DVD, and fly back.”

      5) Do you realize that the very internet on which you are typing your vitriol (“assholes”; “jerks”) can be used to purchase Japanese anime from Japanese vendors? Mathew stated that his daughter is watching the anime in the “original Japanese”. Googling “‘Japanese anime’ DVD” returns almost 5 million results.

      6) Re #5 above, ever heard of a little web site called Plenty of Japanese anime in the original Japanese – no airplane ticket required. You might want to check it out. (You, too, Mathew.)

      7) Certainly, I would assume that lots of Japanese anime never makes it to DVD. That presumed fact still does not make it legal to distribute it without the copyright owners permission, and, unless one expressly knows the copyright owner has given permission, then one is taking a most likely losing wager.

      Finally, you wrote, “They’re just too quick to jump on the piracy assault bandwagon as soon as they hear the word ‘torrent’.”

      7) Wrong – there are plenty of legal uses for torrent sites. The issue here is that Mathew’s admitted use (or rather his daughter’s) was also self-admittedly piracy. (Well, with his “perhaps” qualifier.)

      In Mathew’s favor, copyright owners rarely go after downloaders – they go after sharers.

      Against his favor he writes that his computer was likely turned into a super node. That turned him into a sharer.

      Obviously, none of us posters know all of the facts. Only Mathew does and even he would have to do some research on the anime to see wheter it is copyright protected material.

      It would be an interesting article, but perhaps it would have to be written under a nom de plume with a few changed facts.

    • drklassen

      @pgattocpa—Once more for the intellectually dishonest: Copyright infringement is NOT theft. No matter who says it, no matter how many times it is said. Nothing is taken.

    • pgattocpa


      Then pray tell, why are there copyright laws? Why can’t you print and sell copies of the latest NY Times best seller and keep the profits?

      You would not be “stealing” anything if you paid for the printing, distribution and selling costs.

      Oh, that’s right – you would be stealing the intellectual property of someone who took the time to create something and then sold a portion of that to someonel else to give them the right to print, distribute, sell, etc.

      Talk about intellectual dishonesty from the “if-it’s-digital-it-does-not-exist-therefore-it-cannot-be-stolen” crowd.

      And since you, yourself, used the word “infringement”, what is the act of infringement, in your words?

    • With Netflix online streaming in HD quality, HD movies on iTunes and Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, video podcasts, and many many more I know I am missing, you do not have to be a “pirate” to hit your bandwidth cap these days.

      • Ah, yes, lets petition the government to stop these outrageous infringements on our liberty because we want to see a little more pixels in our video…

      • Sparkey

        @Joe Patel

        Clearly you have a bias here by assuming that the only way to hit a cap is to pirate. You obviously have never heard of remote backup solutions like Mozy, iDrive, Carbonite. Talk to me after a drive crashes or your house catches fire and all of your important files are gone for good.

    • Matt B

      Legally purchased online content is no smaller than illegally downloaded content. I can run into a cap just buying video game bundles on steam or movies on amazon, itunes or vudu. I also have a carbonite account to back up my files. Add to that already mentioned services like hulu, netflix, pandora, audible etc and that’s a lot of bandwidth. There’s also my PS3 which downloads big updates everytime I stick a new game in it and the pretty hefty dlc for those games.

      My family has 2 laptops running most of these services along with 2 smartphones, the previously mentioned PS3 and a Boxee Box. I have a 125 GB cap and we come in just under it every month without pirating a damn thing.

      • That’s a great point, Matt — there are so many devices and services that are connected to the “cloud” for backup and other content-related features, it’s hard to keep track of them all and how much bandwidth they use.

    • KaiserJ

      ridiculous. as a hobby i work on a strategy game; the maps for the games are giant bitmaps (sometimes over 500 megs in size) and a bandwidth cap is massively limiting to my productivity (with a 25 gig cap, i can download such an image 50 times per month)

      sure, -most- people don’t have the same issues that i do with giant files and transfers; i’m just making the point that it’s extremely easy to get to the caps without doing anything piratey or illegal.

      ATM, i’m still operating with an unlimited cap from sympatico, but the thought of having to limit my online activity due to the greed of canadian ISPs (not the little guys but the big ones like rogers/shaw/bell/etc) and the thought that any startup internet based business with large bandwidth demands will have to pay a premium makes me sick to my stomach (netflix canada?)

      this kind of profiteering and stepping on the little guy has less to do with squelching piracy (as they might like you to believe) and more to do with the bottom line for the big guys… what do they care if you are pirating content, as long as you’re gobbling up the bandwidth and keeping the green flowing to their pockets.

    • I’m a youtube partner. My internet is used for uploading the comedy videos i create…and watching other videos. I do NOT pirate movies, shows or games. I literally stream youtube videos. netflix videos, or play the odd Xbox game like call of duty online. I max out my rogers cap every damn time. and i’m not stealing a damn thing. So do yourself a favor and dont be such an assuming jerk. Caps are BS. whats worse…rogers decides what we can and cant do with our internet. they throttle back anything they suspect as a p2p network. which includes popular online cames like world of warcraft. warcraft streams the updates to you while you are playing…in a similar way p2p programs work. this causes rogers to shut you out of the game but cutting back your bandwith. Ask any rogers users in canada who play WoW if they experience random disconnects 2-3 times per play session…..
      Internet companies are infringing on its consumers. stop trying to blame users…

  19. Jeremy Robbins

    Nothing about the Tech being able to tell that your wifi was open freaked you out, not even a little bit? Was it a suggestion on his part or did he tell you, Your wifi is open.

    The part about Rogers posting a message to your browser when you get close to the limit, is this from a APP that Rogers installs or is this alert being feed into the HTML stream to be shown at the top of every page?

    • Well, I know Rogers can see the router and its settings remotely, so that’s not really surprising. And the message is an alert that is inserted into the HTML stream, so it shows up on every web page until you tell it to go away.

  20. I’ve run into similar issues as well in the U.S. There are long term solutions though the industry is not particular interested in pursuing them.

    In the short term, providers, both wired and wireless must inform us what the caps actually are, provide us with timely warnings when the caps are near, reached, and exceeded. Further, there must be a customer option to automatically and temporarily suspend the service when the cap is reached to avoid overage charges. Bill shock legislation is a step in the right direction but the above should be standard for all voice and data services where caps are present.

    In the long term, there’s no excuse for wired broadband providers for not making improvements in their infrastructure to keep up with demand as would be expected in a free market. Unfortunately, most broadband markets are duopolies: the phone and cable companies. It’s just easier to keep charging ever higher prices for a fixed number of bytes (caps) and poor customer service than invest in improving either. That’s what happens when customers don’t have real choices.

    • Guys, let me ask you this. If this were your electricity company or gas company would you be saying “here’s no excuse for wired broadband providers for not making improvements in their infrastructure to keep up with demand as would be expected in a free market.”?

      The issue is one of supply side cost. If people want more data they have to accept that there is going to be a higher charge – its as simple as that. 95Gbytes is a heck of a lot of data to be going through, but then again that’s the challenge with video content because that’s not unreasonable demand for a number of movies per month.

      Out of curiosity what do you pay per month?

      I’m not fully conversant with the Canadian market but what I can see is that the prices aren’t a million miles away from what we pay in the UK and that’s not hugely unreasonable.

    • Yuvamani

      Even if they did .. would you know what was causing the upsurge ? That was the crux of the article …

      This is a fairly common problem. we ended up paying more because of the Dell backup program which came preinstalled with a new dell laptop and somebody signed on for without knowing its implications on an admittedly very low cap internet connection … Its very hard to monitor these things