It’s official – broadband caps cause problems

A new academic study shows that capping monthly broadband usage trigger uneasy user experiences

By - May 9, 2012
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A new Georgia Tech/Microsoft study shows that broadband usage limits (aka bandwidth caps) trigger uneasy user experiences and are putting unnecessary strain on subscribers. These experiences can however be mitigated by better tools to monitor data usage through their home networks.

The study, titled “‘You’re Capped!’ Understanding the Effects of Bandwidth Caps on Broadband Use in the Home”, found that residential broadband users typically manage their capped broadband access against three uncertainties: invisible balances; mysterious processes; and multiple users.

“These uncertainties have predictable impacts on household Internet use and can force difficult choices on users,” said Marshini Chetty, a post-doctoral researcher in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing.

Chetty conducted her study by interviewing 12 households in South Africa, a country which is particularly suitable for this research because of the high prevalence of broadband caps.

“Typically, the caps set by South African ISPs are severe with some plans only offering 1 GB of data per month. At the time of the study, the caps ranged up to 9GB of data, far lower than the 150GB-250GB caps set by U.S. providers,” said Chetty.

“People’s behaviour does change when limits are placed on Internet access and many complain about usage-based billing, but no one has really studied the effects it has on consumer activity,” said Chetty.

“We would also hear about people ‘saving’ bandwidth all month and then binge downloading toward the end of their billing period.”

Marshini Chetty

Marshini Chetty

Chetty explained that “mysterious processes” refers to customers’ inability to determine which applications are eating up their bandwidth.

The uncertainty ranges from being unaware that streaming video or downloading songs consumes much more data than normal web browsing, to not knowing that many background applications (such as automatic software updates) count against the monthly cap.

“We were surprised to learn that many of the households we studied chose not to perform regular software updates in order to manage their cap,” Chetty said.

“This activity can be benign for some applications, inadvisable for others and downright dangerous in certain cases. For example, not installing security patches on your system can leave you vulnerable to viruses and other sorts of cyber attacks.”

Another concern of capping is that in households with multiple Internet users, it can be difficult for the heads of the household to manage overall activity when they are not fully aware of each member’s Internet use.

As with other consumable resources in a household, from milk to hot water, the apportionment of “fair” amounts of bandwidth reflects family practices and requires a fair bit of nuance, varying by family style and composition.

“As ISPs move more toward usage-based pricing, we need to keep in mind the reactive behaviours that consumers adopt and the consequences of those behaviours. Because when you have broadband caps, you will use the Internet differently,” Chetty said.

“If you’re going to have caps, you should empathize with your users and offer ways for customers to see how their data [is] being used and who is using [it].”

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