It’s easy to take internet bandwidth for granted.
The proliferation of “unlimited” and “all you can eat” data deals being marketed nowadays indulges our addiction to streaming media, online gaming and other data-hungry applications.
However, even within the constraints of reasonable usage policies, consumers end up paying for unlimited bandwidth.
The cost of a typical household broadband account can nudge £100 per month, once you add in a landline and stick around after those tempting introductory deals have expired.
Loyalty is rarely rewarded, with substantial annual price hikes among loyal customers helping to subsidise cut-price subscriptions for first-year subscribers.
Even if your internet usage is limited, you’ll still pay the same on most contracts as a family of five with a dozen phones, tablets and smart TVs logged into their WiFi hub.
In these circumstances, data-limited broadband contracts might seem like a viable alternative.
Just like smartphone contracts, monthly data volume caps are imposed. In other words, you’ll only pay for what you’ll realistically use.
But is it that simple?
Playing the percentages
Data-limited broadband contracts set a clear limit on how much data is available each month.
Breaching this cap involves doing one of three things:
- Paying for extra data – often at fairly expensive rates. Like smartphone contracts, top-ups might come in bundles of five or ten GB, even if you only need one or two.
- Accepting usage restrictions. Some providers will throttle line speeds back to a couple of hundred KB per second. Others may block certain activities, like file sharing.
- Finding alternative sources of online data. This could mean relying on 4G connectivity through smartphones, or logging into the WiFi in your nearest café.
Clearly, none of these options is ideal, especially if a key motivation for signing up to a data-limited broadband service involved saving money.
Before entering into a contract, it’s important to estimate what your usage requirements are in a typical month.
Watching an episode of Making a Murderer on Netflix might not seem significant by itself, but an HD stream consumes between one and two GB per hour.
Other activities can also be surprisingly data-intensive.
A typical MP3 file is around 7.5MB given today’s compression rates of 320Kbps, so downloading an album’s worth of songs would consume up 100MB of bandwidth.
Even an hour on Skype could require up to 300MB, and time passes quickly on the phone.
Clearly, a single hour of data-intensive activity may eat up a substantial percentage of your total monthly data allowances, which may be as low as 10GB.
And bear in mind some web-enabled devices are sending and receiving data all the time, adding to overall data consumption.
Although data-limited broadband contracts have a place, they’re best suited for people who have no interest in multimedia.
They’re fine for popping online to check your emails, reading the news and getting into messageboard arguments with strangers.
But if you want to enjoy video streaming or online gaming, it’s generally advisable to choose an unlimited broadband service.
While standing order payments may be larger, there’s no risk of having to invest in mid-month top-ups, which are inconvenient as well as cumulatively expensive.
It’s also reassuring to know your line speed won’t be throttled if you decide to have an all-night Prison Break binge, or work from home using Zoom to participate in meetings.
Plus, unless you’re leaving a PC on overnight connected to P2P file-sharing sites, unlimited bandwidth generally lives up to its name.