Blog Post

Bandwidth Diet? 10 Tips for Managing Your Capped Bandwidth

AT&T (s t) customers entered a realm on May 2 previously reserved for niche ISPs (like the one in my hometown): bandwidth caps. Starting on May 2, AT&T DSL customers have a cap of 150 GB, and U-verse customers have 250 GB of bandwidth (combined upload and download) per month. Having lived under bandwidth totalitarianism since 2005, here are 10 tips to economize your bandwidth usage and prevent unexpected overages both for the newly oppressed:

1. Watch your bandwidth usage at least once a week and plan accordingly.

AT&T has promised accurate and easy to use bandwidth monitors, and it’s up to the customer to check their usage. In our tech-crazy household, we checked our old cable ISP’s meter once a day, but most users can probably get by with once a week. Watch for Internet spikes and, if you see one, use these tips to figure out what’s up and prevent an overage for that month.

Unlike AT&T mobile voice plans, any unused bandwidth doesn’t carry over month-to-month. That means that if you haven’t used all your bandwidth by the end of the month, it’s time to go use it. Unfortunately, everyone else has the same idea at the end of the month, so often, you’ll notice a slowdown as traffic usage increases.

2. Turn off software auto-updates.

Software updates are handy and often increase reliability of your system, but with large updates taking up 500 MB or more, it’s time to be careful. In a household with a large number of systems, one major release can take many gigabytes. Turn off auto-updates by going to the Apple Menu, then System Preferences, and then un-check “Check for Updates”.

If you want an update right away, instead of using Apple’s built-in updater, go to and download the updates manually on just one system and then copy them to all the necessary computers in your household.

While iOS apps are relatively small, updates in the App Store for OS X are not. Be careful of these updates and only do necessary ones mid-month. Wait until the end of the month, and use your leftover bandwidth for the month, if you have any.

3. Avoid a lot of HD videos

Whether it’s YouTube (s goog), Netflix (s nflx), Hulu or even iTunes (s aapl), most video providers give you the option of HD picture quality while viewing. Before caps, you would choose the highest definition your connection could handle. No more. While a few videos won’t make a difference, when the entire household watches everything at 720p, you start reaching your cap quickly. Carefully consider each video and determine whether you truly need top quality and advise everyone in the household to do the same.

4. Beware file synchronization software.

As a big fan of DropBox, I love being able to sync files between computers both in my house and between home and office. Whenever you use DropBox, SugarSync, iDisk or other services, anytime a file is changed the bandwidth meter is running. That presentation you are working on might only be 20 MB, but each time you save the file, that 20 MB is uploaded and steals bandwidth. If you’re good and save every five minutes, within an hour, you’ll have used 240 MB of bandwidth. Four hours of work, and you’re reaching a gig. Ouch.

Instead of working on a live document within a sync folder, consider saving it to your documents folder and copying it to your sync folder only upon the completion of work. You’ll still have the benefits of the file being stored up in the cloud, but not in an instantaneous (and bandwidth sucking) way.

5. Seriously reconsider your online backup strategy

I’ve written about various online backup services, but whichever one you choose, that first backup you do is a large one! Because the caps consider both download and upload, a moderate backup could quickly fill your bandwidth allocation.

When I started with online backup, I specified smaller folders and a slow upload speed until close to the end of the month. Once I knew how much bandwidth I had left, I added folders and increased the backup speed until the first of the new month, and then began the cycle over again. Sure it took quite a few months, but it also meant I didn’t get dinged with overage charges.

Starting over, I probably would have taken up CrashPlan’s option to send them a copy of my hard drive to do the initial backup. Those who already did an initial backup with an online service should be fine unless they add or change a large amount of data. These people will have to accept additional bandwidth charges each month if they keep using AT&T.

6. Scale down your usage of VoIP and webcams.

These services can be fun, exciting and really useful for collaborative work efforts. Apple’s heart-tugging commercials using FaceTime to bridge the gap between families costs bandwidth. Consider using text when actually hearing someone’s voice isn’t required and consider using video only when absolutely necessary and for a minimum period of time especially with the HD-quality desktop FaceTime.

When doing a “virtual” visit back home with voice and video, start with a video chat so you get that initial warm and fuzzy and then scale back to voice to continue the conversation. The bandwidth you save may be your own.

7. Watch for bandwidth vampires.

Many devices in your home use your Internet connection, even when you may not be aware. Security systems, DVRs, and Blu-ray players all use data when online, and game systems will use bandwidth while you are playing games online. Some of this use may be minor, but you still need to be careful.

Enough of these devices, combined with a high bandwidth month elsewhere, and a few quirks can push you over the edge. For example, one month, our TiVo (s TIVO) was caught in a loop and kept downloading its updates over and over again, and it cost us an extra $20 from our local cable ISP. We didn’t even notice the problem right away because the update was at night. That is, we didn’t notice until we got our cable bill! Both TiVo and the cable company were unforgiving.

8. Careful with those torrents.

Torrents are a popular way of quickly downloading large files over the Internet containing both legal and perhaps questionable content. When downloading a file, your system will also upload at the same time. When you have a complete file, you “seed” it to other systems and you act as an ad hoc server for the file. It’s common courtesy to seed for a while so others may download. Reconsider how long you seed. Leaving a torrent open overnight can use a lot of bandwidth. Most torrent clients allow you to slow down or stop your seeds after a period of time. If possible, per tip 1, wait until the end of the month to do your torrenting, and especially seeding.

9. Close those remote connections.

Remote connection software like LogMeIn, GotoMyPC, Timbuktu and even Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are handy ways of telecommuting and getting work done. Often we get lazy and leave a connection open because we want to be able to start our work instantly and want to avoid the hassles of authentication and firing up applications. Not only is this insecure, but an “always up” connection can suck your bandwidth if left open 24/7. Always remember to log out when done.

10. Secure your Wi-Fi connection with a good password.

There are so many good reasons to secure Wi-Fi, but it’s more important now than ever before. Neighbors may accidentally connect to your Wi-Fi network, and their use of your connection counts against your cap. A bad neighbor may even choose your network over their own because they want to keep under their own cap!

Yes, these tips are annoying, frustrating and extremely miserly. An average light user of AT&T’s service will most likely be fine, for now, and not need to use all these tips (expect for #1). These tips are for “the rest of us” who live in multi-device and multi-kid households and are used to using technology to the fullest. Without some careful planning, you can go over your bandwidth allocation and scratch your head wondering why.

Hopefully, these restrictions will ultimately be seen as a failed experiment to control consumer behavior and extract revenue. As I mentioned before, Apple needs to come out with a public statement against caps, as they are inconsistent with Apple’s long-term iTunes and cloud business strategies. As a user, you should let AT&T know your opinion as well and ask them to remove these odious restrictions. Until such times, these tips should help you manage your bandwidth budget and keep your bill reasonable. Be sure to leave your own bandwidth management suggestions in the comments.

29 Responses to “Bandwidth Diet? 10 Tips for Managing Your Capped Bandwidth”

  1. espo1

    Also use flashblock and adblock to stop webpages automatically loading more content you need. Finally close pages you are not using. pages that auto-refresh still use bandwidth.

    If you have a netbook or laptop, do your updates on someone’s network.

    Lastly, use to download updates on another network.

    welcome to America’s broadband, more choice than… Uganda!

  2. These recommendations although sound are laughable. Basically what you’re saying is “don’t use the internet and all of the wonderful services available”. So for now on I won’t: (a) apply critical system updates for fear I’ll go over my cap – I hope YOU enjoy all that Viagra spam my computer will be sending your way; (b) create a reliable backup of my system for fear I’ll go over my cap – I can retake those priceless photos that I just lost due to a hard drive crash; (c) connect any hardware other than my PC because I might go over my cap – I’ll just sit there like an idiot with a remote control in my hand; (d) stream any video – instead I’ll have the DVD sent to me or pick it up at the store (oh wait my Blockbuster just shut down oh well – never mind I’ll just sit here and stare at the floor); (e) send anything to anyone because I’m afraid I’ll force them over THEIR cap.

    • I agree that these limits hinder your internet experience, but you don’t have to do them all. If you get to the end of the month and haven’t hit your cap, go crazy. For those of us hitting the wall, some of these suggestions can help.

      Of course you can switch providers, unless your location (like mine) has only two choices and both have caps.

  3. Virtually anyone who is using AT&T DSL services will qualify for the same service through DSL Extreme (or other wholesalers like earthlink). These companies buy the DSL lines wholesale through AT&T, but they don’t have any caps on them. Additionally DSL Extreme is cheaper than AT&T DSL as well, for the 6mbit service.

    So my advice is: send AT&T a message – switch to DSL Extreme, don’t worry about caps and keep them bytes flowing!

  4. Most torrent clients allow you to set the share ratio. I recommend a value of 1.1 or so. That is enough, so if everyone used the same ratio files would always be available, but it is low enough to minimize unnecessary internet usage. Another tip is there are multiple VOIP codecs. If you are really tight on bandwidth, you can choice one that give you a higher rate of data compression. Using your own server to run squid to proxy files for the whole house might also save some bandwidth. You might want to also avoid internet radio. Especially if using it as background music to entertain pets while you are out of the house.

    Overall though, most people’s bandwidth is taken up by video. So that is what you really need to economize on.

  5. Jeremiah Ross

    According to Net Neutrality, and common sense, the TV services do not count. They are segregated from the Internet connection and never leave the ISPs internal network (follow a different logical path). For them to utilize the internet connection would require a) Greater backhaul b) slower channel change times, and c) no guarantee of TV Service as this would be preferential.

    It should be noted that VoIP, at best, used 64kbps … hardly a bandwidth hog. I am not sure that reducing voip is a viable strategy, but video conferencing, gaming, and lower content (do you really need HD unless you are watching on a HTPC?) are good suggestions.

  6. I have a 4Gb cap on my DSL line in Albania but the ISP is so idiot that has created some accounts with unlimited cap an I don’t worry about it at all.

  7. Neill

    So, basically, you are telling me to stop using the internet in the way that I want to use it. This is why people don’t want bandwidth caps.

    Most of the TV that we watch in my house is through Netflix and Hulu. Why would I pay $150/month when I can pay $60 for internet and $20 for Netflix+Hulu and watch whatever else I want from the networks’ websites? Rarely is there a show that comes on that I can’t watch using one of those methods.

    The real issue here is that the people providing internet are also making money off of TV. The TV industry is changing and they are doing everything they can to stop it. These bandwidth caps reek of conflicting interests. I would love to see some cost justifications for these bandwidth capping systems. How much is that extra 50GB really costing you to deliver? 2 cents? 3? It isn’t costing them a penny extra until they reach a limit of concurrent bandwidth. At that point, they have to upgrade. Even then, it’s either a one time cost or they are purchasing a huge incremental chunk of bandwidth from a tier one provider. Either way, they should charge more when they have to spend more, not when costs are going down.

    • Robin

      Bingo. In order to appease our providers, now we have to not use the internet in the way we want or are used to using it. It’s irritating.

  8. Your advise to scale down on VoIP is misleading, to say the least. Even if someone will be voice chatting 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, he (she) will hardly reach 5Gb of data usage per month.

  9. Gardner

    The broadband providers putting usage caps on access is gong to put a serious crimp in those fancy “cloud” services. A lot of media providers like Hulu, iTunes, and Comcast want users to download lots of pretty shiny high definition content. Other companies want users to move their computing and data storage usage online. Even Microsoft is getting into the act with the Windows 7 “to the cloud” ads.

    But what I find the funniest is Comcast putting usage caps in place. After all they provide both access and content. A clear cut case of conflict of interest.

  10. This is a weak move. They have returned on investments many years ago, internet cost should keep sinking for the end customers.

  11. What is wrong with the US lately!? I’ve seen all over news about bandwidth caps and pay-as-you-go plans that still don’t give you the full bandwidth available. :/

    I live in a so called third world, well now, “developing country” and I use to have the US in a pedestal in terms of technology and now I’m just a little disappointed. Here, ISPs do not have caps on them, sure, they’re not as fast as, say FiOS, the fastest is also fiber optics @100Mbps, Axtel, most peak at 5-20Mbps, but at least they’re not capped. Also most cellphone carriers offer unlimited data and tethering at no charge.

    I hope this trend doesn’t goes any further ’cause whatever the US does, the rest of America follows suit, well at least north and central.

    • does that invalidate the point? the idea is that constantly updating changed to dropbox causes bandwidth concern.. if you’re redoing the same part of the file over and over again does it not still consume bandwidth repeatedly?

      not trolling but genuinely asking.

    • I appreciate you pointing that Dropbox “tries” to reduce file size upload. While my calculations might be off in some instances, when you are starving for bandwidth every little bit helps and it’s a relative painless way to keep lean and trim on your bandwidth. Of course, would be best if the cap wasn’t even there.

  12. Being from Canada, I’ve always had bandwidth limits.
    My best tips?
    1) Set your torrents to stop uploading after you hit a 1:1 ratio.
    2) Install Click2Flash or a FlashBlocker extension.

  13. Jason E.

    Ugh, this move by AT&T just stinks. It’s like being on Compuserve or something 20 years ago – better not go over your 10 free hours a month or you’ll pay up the nose.

  14. While I am not in favor of data caps, this change might encourage some good behaviors in consumers. Especially if your computer has been taken over by some bot network and is eating your bandwidth, its more likely you will do something about it.
    I do have a question however, how much bandwidth is used when you watch cable TV or FIOS TV. Shouldn’t the caps be tied to the average used by the carriers cable tv customers and then an additional amount to handle internet functions, such as software updates and so on?

    • wait what? are you asking if watching TV counts towards you bandwidth?

      I’m pretty certain it doesn’t, never has and never will. If it did that would push people towards Hulu. (if it’s going to count might as well watch it when you want) besides people who leave their TVs on all day esp the HD channels would eat thru 250 gb in less than a week.

      If you’re talking about like On Demand (or more appropriately On Demand via your cable website then you might have a point. To whit I’m certain these cable companies will want to make allowances (i.e. unlimited BW) if you’re watching THEIR online content. That’s what net neutrality is fighting against.

      The only way they can really get around that might be say unlimited BW if you’re using the Comcast iPad App to watch movies or something like that. It’s the same thing.. but appified. Like how my phone has unlimited data if you use the for all of your facebook needs.

      As far as capping on a curve which is what you’re saying.. that’s far too dynamic to be implemented. That favors the consumer far too much. Caps are designed to reign in bad internet behaviour because you can’t handle everyone going balls to the wall 1000 gig each month. If you just say “we’re going to curve” then everyone starts torrenting Wikipedia each month and suddenly the average is now 800 gigs.

      As far as caps go the idea (if I can make up numbers) is most people USE maybe 100 gigs. They’re draining 300 gigs. It’s like water. You have to fix that leaky faucet but when water is just so darn cheap why bother. This is supposed to fix that. For instance you don’t really need to be draining HD video to your 3 inch phone’s screen over WiFi so you can listen to The Daily Show while you take a shower. That sort of ignorant behaviour leads to everyone draining gig after gig after gig and it’s stressing the companies out. They did their research and most people are only actively using 100gigs… so they cap at 250 which should be more than enough for 90% of us. The 10% is maybe 2% people who are literally using it and they should have to pay and 8% people who are draining out of control like the guy who turns on the AC and then opens his doors so he can get the right breeze.

      That’s the argument from their side. The opposition would claim all kinds of things i don’t know like 250 is way too small. Maybe 100 was the normal 4 years ago but now the norm is growing to 300 rapidly and by the companies are just eager to cheat us out of overage money. There’s also the ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ concerns which seem a bit childish to me personally, but that’s not often used.

      • Anonymous

        And no it is not like water. Once you consume water, its gone. However data is not consumed, its transfered. Just like cable for tv services, and your voice over the phone. Just a transfer of data.

    • Jeremiah Ross

      According to Net Neutrality, and common sense, the TV services do not count. They are segregated from the Internet connection and never leave the ISPs internal network (follow a different logical path). For them to utilize the internet connection would require a) Greater backhaul b) slower channel change times, and c) no guarantee of TV Service as this would be preferential.