Although broadband services are often referred to as “unlimited”, it is usually a good idea to be informed of how download limits work (not least because in practice many plans are not really unlimited). This is especially true for some kinds of broadband, such as mobile broadband. So it is worthwhile to be up to speed on how limits are calculated, what the different practices and limits are for different types of broadband, and what the ramifications are for exceeding the broadband limits that might be part of your contract.
The first thing to bear in mind is that the terms used to measure broadband speeds usually are not identical to the terms used to measure the amount of data used. There is a distinction between a bit and a byte – bytes are usually what customers think in terms of, while bits are used by engineers when speaking of performance. So your monthly allowance is dealt with in bytes, but since broadband speed is a closely related to overall network performance, it is discussed in terms of bits by both the provider’s engineers and also for the consumer in advertising. You might have a 20Mb (megabit) connection speed with a 100MB (megabyte) per month download limit, for example.
The amount of data used by different types of internet use vary widely, more than you might think. An email will only use a few KB in many cases, while a long HD movie could use a few hundred thousand times more than that (around 2GB). It’s very easy to see the common data requirements of different usages by searching online, for example the average song is about 3MB.
Download limits can be particularly relevant for those who stream HD content often. Even with a high speed mobile broadband service that allows downloading of movies quickly, mobile broadband usually has a limit applied so in many cases you will use up your available data for the month if you download a few movies in HD.
Many providers advertise unlimited broadband, but then have various fair usage policies which if infringed upon will activate warning, usage caps, usage throttling or even service cancellation.
While this seems unfair if the broadband is advertised as “unlimited”, in reality this means that normal use is unlimited so there will be no barriers if you are using it within these “normal usage” boundaries. The reason that this is not so unfair is that due to the nature of broadband connections where one users service will be negatively impacted in the event that another exceeds the normal threshold of usage. To provide a satisfactory service to all customers, there needs to be caps on how much resources are taken up by any one user.
The provider will initiate warnings, speed throttles, or monthly lowered caps if the user exceeds the fair usage policy regularly. It is therefore important to consult the terms and conditions when signing up for a new subscription
While it is hard to exceed the fair usage policies of mobile broadband services in most cases, this is not true for mobile broadband (in particular prepaid), since the networks are under higher pressure so there are therefore lower thresholds for exceeding the limits.
Another risk especially with bill pay phones is that you will be charged a higher rate for every MB you use above your allowance. His can really add up. Prepaid mobile broadband is not as cost effective in normal circumstances but precludes the risk of high surcharges (if you’re credit is gone then your service stops automatically).