How Bad Do We Really Have It? Bandwidth Caps Around The World

[The US has had a different experience to Australia, but we still thought this was an interesting story for Australian readers. Their take on Australian pricing is a bit of a mess, though... -ed] Remember the days when unlimited Internet connections were just that? Unlimited? I'm not talking about a generational gap here—it seems like but a few years ago, that $US40, or $US60, or $US80 you shuffled away to your favourite Internet service provider each month got you true unlimited Internet. You could download Linux distros until your router exploded; stream movies until your eyes exploded; play Counter-Strike until your… well, OK, Counter-Strike never really did use up that much bandwidth.

We live in different times now. Each bit and byte of data you transmit has an effective price tag: You're paying for unlimited service so long as you, like many others, ignore the fine print that specifically tells you just how much unlimited service you're going to get until your ISP gets pissy. Look, we can both agree that this practice is a complete joke, and it's just one more way for your data providers to slowly squeeze the noose until we're all paying $US10 per picture we download on our mobile phones.

But is it really that bad?

It goes without saying that America's Internet infrastructure (and pricing models) can vary wildly from those found in the rest of the world. But let's not end the comparison with just a throwaway statement like that: How do American ISPs fare against their cross-cultural brethren? Does it get much worse than this… or better?

The United States

AT&T

AT&T is one of the latest companies to impose bandwidth restrictions on its user base, with the second-largest subscriber count in the country behind behemoth Comcast. As of May 2, AT&T users on the company's DSL service—capping out at a $US20/mo cost—only get 150 gigabytes of downloaded data per month. U-Verse download limits cap out at around 250 gigabytes for a monthly cost of anywhere from $US35 to $US65, depending on the speed of one's connection. Going over the monthly limits on either plan summons forth a $US10-per-50GB surcharge.

Comcast

Enter, the giant. Comcast was one of the first, and largest, of the American ISPs to launch a bandwidth-capping initiative overtop its previously marketed "unlimited" Internet service. The company's cap for its cable Internet packages sits at 250 gigabytes of downloaded or uploaded data per month, a limit hit by "less than 1%" of the company's user base, it claims. On the plus side, pushing over this monthly limit doesn't incur a fee from Comcast: You merely make yourself eligible for a warning phone call. Exceed the monthly data cap again within six months of this call, and Comcast might pull the plug on your account for a year. The company's high-speed Internet starts at $US35 monthly.

Cox

This might sound like a broken record by now, but high-speed Internet service from Cox Communications follows Comcast and AT&T's footsteps with bandwidth limits. Regardless of which Internet plan you sign up for—the cheapest plan starts at $US35 monthly for 3 Mbps download speeds–Cox limits its high-speed users to 250 combined gigabytes of use per month. There's no specific mention of penalties or fees against those who push past the limit, save for the following line found in the company's Acceptable Use Policy: "Cox may suspend the Service or require you to upgrade the Service to a higher package and/or pay additional fees."

Canada

The Great White North might have quote-unquote free healthcare, but certainly not bandwidth-free Internet services. Most Canadians can count on receiving Internet service from one of three major ISPs: Rogers, Shaw, and Bell. Rogers has, perhaps, the least lenient of the Internet policies. Depending on the tier of service you purchase, you get anywhere from two gigabytes of monthly use (that's not a typo) to 175 gigabytes—at a cost of $US28/mo to $US100/mo. Exceeding the cap can cost anywhere from $US5 a gigabyte (for the two-GB-per-month plan) to $US0.50 per gigabyte. Bell's two DSL-based services give you two or 25 gigabytes of monthly Internet use ($25 or $US35 monthly), and its four fibre optic services kick up usage rates to a range of 25 to 75 gigabytes per month ($35 to $US56 monthly).

United Kingdom

Where do we begin? Unlike its American counterpart, which contracts out broadband services to other providers, AOL actually runs its own broadband service in the United Kingdom. Well, a company called TalkTalk technically provides service, but here's the skinny for our friends overseas: For approximately $US30 monthly, users can sign up for a combined phone and broadband plan from TalkTalk dubbed, "Essentials." That gets one a total of 40 gigabytes per month of use, and includes extra fees for "Security" and "Line Rental."

Jumping up to a TalkTalk Plus package, however, unlocks the Holy Grail: Unlimited broadband use. And as far as we can tell, that's not unlimited as in, "We'll think of a bandwidth cap later." It truly looks like one can download everything under the sun… so long as a user doesn't mind paying approximately $US44 per month to do so. TalkTalk doesn't give a raw speed estimate for the service, instead suggesting that, "We'll give you the fastest broadband we can provide; and that will depend on how close you live to the exchange, what your wiring is like and how good your line is."

UK Service provider BT has three main tiers of service for its various broadband plans. The lowest, offering a scant 10 gigabytes per month of access, gives users a 20-megabit download speed and only night and weekend phone calls bundled into the service for a cost of around $US21 per month. Next up the ladder is a service plan that offers anywhere from 20-megabit to 40-megabit download speeds and a usage allowance of forty total gigabytes per month—to a monthly cost of around $US29. Finally, BT lets loose its unlimited data plans for a total of $US45 per month.

However, don't just think that you can flick on the BitTorrent and be done with it. According to BT's policy documents, the company says it reserves the right to manage speeds for "non-critical" applications during peak usage times—typically between four p.m. and midnight during weekdays and 9 a.m. to midnight on weekends. But, hey, the data's unlimited, right?

Virgin Media's the last of the big UK service providers we're taking a look at, but they certainly aren't least. Each of the company's broadband packages comes with the promise of unlimited downloads. That's it. End of story, right?

Were it only that easy. First off, you're paying between around $US34 to $US73 a month, at maximum, for the broadband service—the rates vary depending on the speeds you elect to sign up for. Second, Virgin Media slaps a big ol' asterisk next to the word "unlimited." While you're free to download as much as you want, the ISP specifically (or rather, not-so-specifically) prohibits the download of illegal or unlawful items, as well as downloading practices that are "inconveniencing other Internet users." And, like BT, Virgin Media throttles users download and upload speeds: This includes standard traffic and P2P traffic, depending on the service tier you've purchased.

Japan

It's difficult to pinpoint down bandwidth limits in Japan, primarily as a result of this writer's inability to speak Japanese, but we have managed to track down a few key details as to how Internet usage rates are set up. Japanese carrier NTT Communications posts a warning to users on its OCN Hikari fiber-optic service (whose monthly cost ranges from approximately $US48 to $US82), noting that the company will consider restricting the use of anyone who pushes past 30 gigabytes of daily transfers. Think about that for a second: 30 gigabytes. That's almost an allowance of a terabyte of bandwidth per month. What are you going to download? The Internet? As far as we can tell, Japanese service provider ASAHI Net offers no bandwidth limitations for users of its DSL services—including download speeds of up to 50 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 5 Mbps for anywhere from $US32 to $US48 monthly.

Australia

How's Internet in the land Down Under? Would you be surprised to learn that it varies? Internet Service Provider TPG offers DSL connections ranging from $US10 monthly to $US30. The $US10 service comes with a peak and off-peak bandwidth cap of five gigabytes in total, whereas the $US30 service unleashes the full fire hose: unlimited downloads and uploads. That's with a home phone bundle, however. If you're just looking for Internet, and Internet only, then you'll have to pony up $US60 for the unlimited DSL connectivity. Otherwise, TPG offers plans with usage restrictions ranging from a total of 15 gigabytes per month to 500. For a mere $US80 monthly, Australian ISP Optus offers DSL with a maximum theoretical speed of 20 Mbps across the board. The difference in pricing between the company's many plans directly relates to the amount of bandwidth you're able to consume within a month: $US80 gets you 250 gigabytes of peak and off-peak bandwidth, with any overages in the "off-peak" hours being taken out of one's peak time. Should you exceed your limit, you have one of two options: Upgrade to the company's $US129 plan which gives you broadband, phone service, and a terabyte of monthly use, or enjoy a super-slow connection (throttled by Optus) down to 64 Kbps or 256 Kbps until your monthly limit resets.

Ouch.

New Zealand

For some reason, we keep hearing about how New Zealand's Internet privileges are downright draconian as a result of the policies and prices presented by its ISPs. That sounds like a challenge. As it turns out, those spreading FUD are sort of right. New Zealand's WorldNet charges anywhere from $US31 to $US45 (price varies by length of contract requested) for a mighty one gigabyte of monthly use—that's right. One gigabyte. But should you need to download more than just your email, you can always bump up to one of the company's higher service tiers. A whopping 50 gigabytes per month will set you back anywhere from $US56 to $US70, and unleashing the full powers of the Internet into your home in an unlimited capacity costs between $US99 and $US109.

On the plus side, WorldNet does give its subscribers two different options for when they go over service: They can either elect to have their speeds reduced to 64 Kbps and deal with it, or they can pay for additional Gigabytes in blocks (five gigabytes for $US10 all the way to 200 gigabytes for $US165) or a la carte, which comes in at $US2 per gigabyte used.

The ISP Kinect has a wide range of available service options, including the ability for you to create your own package from the company's offerings. You start by picking a speed option—either 256/128 KBps for $US30 per month or the company's "Full Speed" offering for $US41 per month. Then add on the data! This ranges from half a gigabyte of data, which sets you back an extra $US2 per month, to 10 gigabytes of data, which costs an extra $US15 per month.

For more data, Kinect does offer a Full Speed 100-gigabytes-per-month option. That'll set you back $US149 every 30 days. And the company does offer an unlimited, Full Speed data plan option. For whatever reason, it's priced at $US105 monthly—cheaper than the 100-gigabyte plan, but it does come with the caveat that Kinect manages traffic to prioritize email and web browsing at certain times for its unlimited customers. Sorry, BitTorrenters: Unlimited might be unlimited, but it ain't fast.

Bits, Bytes and the Brighter Side

So how fares the good ol' U.S. of A? Our prices don't seem that bad, even for service that comes with a pretty high overhead (like, say, 250 gigabytes of bandwidth per month). And here's the kicker: As far as I can tell, AT&T and Comcast aren't shaping their traffic during critical usage periods across their networks. The high-speed Internet you purchase is yours to use whenever and however you see fit, provided you don't go over the cap. We're no Japan, which can practically download a hard drive on a daily basis without issue, but it is nice to live in a land where Internet service isn't quite so tiered on the side of data just yet. Think about it: Would you rather be paying more money for the ability to download things faster, or the ability to download more things? We're no fans of keeping track of Internet use over some crappy web form or annoying software utility. If what AT&T and Comcast say is true, in that very few of its users will ever reach the 250GB monthly download limits, then we'd rather spend our paychecks kicking up our speeds. Here's hoping we never have to start considering Internet use in terms of "prices per gigabyte, per month."

And here's hoping we never have to move to New Zealand.

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Comments

    It's pretty disgusting that American's believe that they are "entitled" to unlimited bandwidth. Bandwidth is a resource, just like water, or electricity. Why SHOULDN'T it be charged in exactly the same way, in terms of how much you use?
    It really pisses me off that I'm pay 60$ a month for 150GB, I never use all of it, and people on AT&T complain about paying for 250GB at 30$, when they probably use as much as I.
    /rant.

      I don't see anything "disgusting" about it. Bandwidth is cheap. I don't know why you are paying such exorbitant amount for a measly 150GB because there are way cheaper plans around. What you don't understand is that American's are not using the TV as much as the ISP's who have a vested interest with cable companies want them to. With websites like Hulu and netflix allowing users to do everything one the internet the cable companies want to ensure that people don't remove their cable plan and stay only on internet. This is why i think the whole cap thing is being introduced. I am certain that people in Australia will also use a lot more internet when they are finally sick and tired of the slow and ad-ridden Television station and move to their "iview" style counterparts.

        Bandwidth may be "cheap" but it still paid for by ISP's on a GB usage ratio. If you use 1GB, you should pay for that 1GB. It's like the argument when "unlimited" ISPs came out in the UK - It's unfair for those users who only use say 5GB compared to those who use 300-400GB a month. And thus they brought out tiered caps.

        60$ a month for 150GB is a lot better than it was 2 years ago. I was paying that much for 12GB on Telstra!

        Bandwidth is not an infinite resource. Like the water shortages in Australia, American's are going to have to realise that they cannot have everything for cheap prices. Economically, it just does not work.

          "Bandwidth is not an infinite resource. Like the water shortages in Australia, American’s are going to have to realise that they cannot have everything for cheap prices. Economically, it just does not work."

          Hmmm, so you are telling me we are going to run out of bandwidth? Riiight. Just because ISPs are charged by the GB, does not mean they are required to pass that pricing structure down to the customers. I think it's pretty absurd to have capped plans and then have to pay ridiculous overage charges and get throttled to a speed that barely makes the internet usable if you mistakenly go over. I much prefer a pricing structure based on a subscription access fee, not one that you have to guess how much throughput you will need and hope you don't go over.

          You have your choice to favour a capped pricing plan, but you are the sucker for thinking that's a better solution. You think the ISPs are not pulling an enormous profit either way?

    New Zealands internet plans are terrible. I have a friend living over there and she gets 40GB a month on ADSL2+ for something like 90 dollars, it's pretty crap when i'm sitting on 200GB a month for 120 a month + home line & mobile.

      $120 a moth for 200GB? If you were in the US that'd be less than $30. Even our best plans here in Oz suck balls.

    "...capping out at a $US20/mo cost—only get 150 gigabytes of downloaded data per month."

    I don't even...

    Kinda jealous of Japan's internet now... :\

    I remember being on exchange in Japan and trying to understand how much data they had on their home internet so I didn't use it all... they looked at me so strangely when I asked their data limit.

    I dont understand your US dollar conversions.
    Youre saying TPG has full unlimited usage for US$30.

    Im on the unlimited TPG plan, paying AU$60 per month.
    Thats US$64 per month.

      TPG advertise their unlimited plan as $30/month, but really it's $30 for the net and $30 for the home phone.
      You're right about the conversions tho, they seem to think their dollar is better than ours ;)

    Way off on Aussie internet.
    Most plans now are around 500GB to 1TB with 2 or 3 providers offering unlimited for around the $70USD mark.

    We're paying $80/mo for 50GB with telstra, I'll take that 150Gb/$20 plan any day of the week.

    I'm with Optus, and I have a 1TB a month limit. It has served me well. And it's only $130 a month, including unlimited local and national calls.

    In Australia 1 company missing there is iinet who are the 2nd largest internet provider in the country, who offer between 10gb to 1tb per month on ADSL1 for US$34 - US$117 or 20GB - 1TB on ADSL2 for US$29 - US$97 both bundled with free local and interstate calls and when you go over the threshold your speed is capped down to 256kb up/down

    US$30 for unlimited on TPG?

    Is the writer of this article living in the early 90's? Our dollar is worth more than theirs, and I fkn WISH I could get unlimited for under AU$30.

      As someone else has said above, TPG advertise it as $30 + $29.99 for your landline line rental.

    what about China? I heard China's internet is cheap and fast. I'm surprised that it's not even mentioned here.

    @poltak: well, they've got to upload Japanese porn for the rest of the world XD

    If you had a look at other European Countries (like France, Italy, SPain amongst others)where Unlimited means unlimited ... You pay a bit more than 30 euros or 40 AUD for phone, TV and internet with speed of 20 Mbps up to 100 MBps in some cable covered regions ...

    This story just seemed like a random rant to me.
    A lot of generalisation about figures and ISP, very light on actual facts and comparisons.

    TPG Unlimited ADSL2+ is $58.99 in Australia, on a 6 month contract when I signed up. There bolt-on mobile caps are fairly good $25/month for an unlimited sim.

    The word is TPG may also release unlimited fibre access next year, once the NBN roll-out ramps up.

      We already have Australians able to access 100/40Mbps with 1TB of data for $99AU. These speeds and data plans will be available to most residents, once the NBN roll-out progresses through Australia.

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