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What Is Average Data Use And Should You Care?

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 51 comments

So, what can you get for 150 GB? Does AT&T have a case? Are you an average Internet consumer? Is it unfair and will it increase your monthly data bill? Let's look.

It's easy to fall into hysteria over such news. It's in our nature that we just don't like it if something is taken away that we have been used to, even if it is reasonable reduction of a service. And it's not like we haven't been living under a bandwidth cap for the past several years. There has always been a silent 250 GB bandwidth cap, which you were reminded of with a courtesy letter, if you exceeded it. Providers such as Comcast reserved the right to terminate your service if you consistently pushed your data usage beyond 250 GB per month.     

AT&T cuts its bandwidth limit now by 40%, which is substantial, but you could argue that it's still enough to transfer 35,000 12 megapixel pictures per month, download about 40,000 MP3 songs or transmit 8823 hours of basic Skype video chat. However, that is only one side of the story as you take this argument in the other direction and claim that there are plenty of high-bandwidth applications that have emerged as bandwidths have increased an enabled applications such as HD video streaming. What is the purpose of a 100 Mb/s connection, if you theoretically burn through 150 GB in about 200 minutes? Silly question, the purpose, of course, is to charge to extra for the connection you have been paying through the nose already.

I am not sure how you felt, but as an AT&T customer, the announcement caused me to look a bit closer into the data usage of our household. AT&T says the average user consumes about 18 GB a month and, quite frankly, I had no idea what our data usage was. In AT&T's terms my family may qualify as excessive Internet users, even though we do not share files through services such as RapidShare or BitTorrent, which are traditionally used as reasons why bandwidth caps are put in place.

The biggest chunk of data consumption does not come from the PC, it is downloaded by our game consoles PS3/Xbox 360/Wii. It turns out that we stream about 20 Netflix movies per month, which, in a worst case scenario run at about 2 GB per hour or about 60-80 GB per month. Our four teenage kids spend considerable time on YouTube, Hulu, Flickr and Flash gaming sites which we conservatively estimate at about 500 MB of data per day or 15 GB per month. Our music consumption has moved to the cloud and we use several devices through our household that stream pure radio and music, typically at a rate of about 56 MB per hour or 224 MB per day or about 6 GB per month. We also got used to videoconferencing services to keep in touch with other family members: Our service runs at 667 Kb/s or about 290 MB per hour or 4 GB per month.   

Of course, there is the miscellaneous data consumption that would include email, security updates, Facebook, Twitter, and those massive game console updates, music purchases, and increasingly popular cloud applications services within our family (which also includes a frequently Chrome OS notebook). Additionally there is substantial office data use of just about 10 GB of data every month. Our fixed data usage appears to be about 115 GB of data per month, not included our miscellaneous items, which we expect take us to close to 130 GB. That is about 6-7x the data usage of AT&Ts average Internet user. Are we excessive Internet users? It may be substantial, but there is no reckless behavior beyond the fact that we embraced many data services we believe make our life simpler and easier. In fact, it is the data connection that is the problem in many cases: AT&T's DSL has quality issues at least once a week, it is far from being competitive with global bandwidth standards and if you need their support to fix and issue on their end, you are now charged extra for second-level support that you will need to buy if you know how to find your Internet settings on your own.   

I have no issues paying for what we use, but I have issue with being lied to and being viewed stupid. Let's be realistic: The 150 GB bandwidth cap is not a deterrent for high-capacity users. It's a silent price increase which enables AT&T to charge $10 extra for 50 GB extra data. It's a not-so-silent anti-competitive move to curb the influence services such as Netflix or higher-level providers such Google TV or Apple TV. With the 150 GB cap in place, there is no way for Netflix to compete with AT&T, if it wanted to, on a broad level and as a primary content provider. It even hurts services such as Steam, which causes massive data volumes for gaming enthusiasts, at least on the level of frequent Netflix usage. AT&T said that the data cap would not affect its own U-verse service, but hit its rivals. If AT&T gets away with such a statement, you know that the government is not acting on your behalf anymore.

I have argued before that data bandwidth caps are anti-competitive and a serious threat to innovation in this country - a threat that is continuously held like a Sword of Damocles over your head. I am not sure if AT&T and other carriers are afraid of future data usage and are simply taking turns with those threats in the hope to wear us out or if they are under the impression the average American Internet user is stupid enough to think that 18 GB of data ought to be enough for a month in the year 2011 and we should be grateful for being granted 150 GB. Especially AT&T has a tendency to sell price increases as price reductions - if we remember the 200 MB and 2GB wireless caps that cost you $30 for 201-400MB of data - the same price as the previous flat rate. It's a company that is stuck in a time that is long gone.

As for the 150 GB cap, it will be interesting to see who will exceed the limit, but I believe it will be more than just the 2% of users AT&T currently says. So, are you an average Internet user?

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  • -4 Hide
    matt87_50 , March 17, 2011 11:58 PM
    should just be pay by the byte...

    now THAT is fair!

    most people who cringe at the idea do so because they assume that means "expensive"

    but it doesn't have to be. the important thing is that its fair.
  • 3 Hide
    ludee , March 17, 2011 11:59 PM
    I don't live in the US, but I think AT&T is just being idiotic. If 150Gb cap affects only 2% of users it shouldn't be a big deal. AT&T only makes itself look bad by doing this.
  • 4 Hide
    fusion_gtx , March 18, 2011 12:01 AM
    I remember when Steam had their whole Christmas special going on. Between my roommates and myself we burned through 150gb in a 3 day stint of mass downloading...
  • Display all 51 comments.
  • 5 Hide
    LuckyDucky7 , March 18, 2011 12:11 AM
    I'm Canadian. My government cares enough to slap 'em down. They just did recently.

    Maybe some writing needs to go on? Time for the FCC to illegalize this crap?

    I think so.
  • 5 Hide
    Supertrek32 , March 18, 2011 12:23 AM
    The biggest issue I have with data caps is that they're so obviously NOT a solution to any real problem. The amount of data carried over a line in a month doesn't matter. What matters is the amount of data passing through the line at any given moment - aka bandwidth.

    So what happens when you put a data cap on the line? People wait till the end of the month to use up all the extra and you have a huge spike in bandwidth usage. Caps don't prevent lines from being overloaded. They promote it. If only a couple neighbors have their bills come at the same time of the month, the entire neighborhood (and possibly even nearby neighborhoods) will see performance plummet.

    Data caps don't fix any problems (that actually exist). They just make them worse.
  • 4 Hide
    xambron , March 18, 2011 12:24 AM
    I don't usually download that much, but you never know. I say remove the cap.
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , March 18, 2011 12:25 AM
    There's a petition on Change.org now urging people to speak out again these AT&T data caps. Sign it and share it and maybe we can defeat this abomination of a decision and show AT&T that we won't stand for it.

    http://www.change.org/petitions/tell-att-that-data-caps-are-absolutely-unacceptable
  • 0 Hide
    nforce4max , March 18, 2011 12:28 AM
    I couldn't survive on 250gb a week much less a month. >:|

    Greedy jerks! The only real cost to the isp is the end devices while much of the backbone infrastructure was already built during the .com boom era.
  • 2 Hide
    selks , March 18, 2011 1:43 AM
    In an average sized town in Ontario, we pay $55 a month plus tax for a 60GB cap at 14Mbps, and $1.50 a GB over the cap up to $30. I average about 40-50GB a month between myself and my roommate, neither of us torrent, but we do download about a game a month on steam. During our free month of Netflix however, we used 140GB. I wish I did have a 150GB cap, but I'm sure theres many people out there who wish they had a 60GB cap. I've heard some horror stories about some services in Europe. Just my two cents.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 18, 2011 1:53 AM
    seems at&t is always claiming what they change is only going to affect 2% of their users.....

    they upgrade cell tower equipment and which puts all 3g iphone uploads to edge only... and claimed it affected only 2% of users(didnt know iphone only made up 2% of all thier phone use...)

    the cell data plan cap was only going to affect 2% of users..... i guess no folks use pandora while at work? i do and just a few hours a day puts me WAY over 2 gigs a month....

    and now they plan on caping thier dsl? why are we moving backwards 15 years in progress to when dsl first came out and telecom companies complained that broadband would allow users to overload their equipment and congress needed to let them cap the data on heavy users..... it didnt work then, but it seems people dont have the guts to stand up to them anymore...
  • 0 Hide
    bvillan , March 18, 2011 2:13 AM
    The 150GB cap is for DSL Service, whose bandwidth maxes @ 6mbps. AT&T will also start forcibly converting customers in areas to Uverse, whose cap will remain @ 250GB. I have Time Warner, I game online, stream Netflix, download larger torrent files from time to time, and share my internet connection with 3 neighbors, and I average 30GB down a month.

    This article is a tad sensational. The idea that heavy bandwidth users may pay a little more, whose payment will in turn assist with the conversion from older copper infrastructure to fiber is completely fair, and I believe the average user claim for "DSL" users is accurate. AT&T is expecting the backlash, and I promise you the "average" user won't be aware of the change.

    C'est la vie.
  • 1 Hide
    SmileyTPB1 , March 18, 2011 2:23 AM
    While I agree with the bigger picture of AT&T being anti competitive with this bandwidth cap I think that the more direct reason is that AT&T just wants your money. I think that it is much more than just 2% of customers that will be affected by this. The real number is probably more around 10-15% and they know that most of those customers will just pay the extra rather than limit their usage or switch providers.

    As an AT&T wireless customer I have to check my bill thoroughly every month because AT&T like to subscribe me to services I didn't ask for and then charge me for them. When I call to get unsubscribed from these services and get the charges taken off my bill they always make it very difficult to do. Customer service operators always argue that the charge is somehow my fault and that I should pay for it, will not ever transfer you to a supervisor, and don't usually respond to anything but the threat of legal action.

    I know I am not an isolated case. As the largest wireless provider in the US can you imagine how much extra money they are making off of customers who either don't notice the extra charges or don't go through the hassle of getting it fixed. If they do this to 2 million customers and only 1 million of them get the charges taken off that is an extra 1 million dollars they are making every single month off of their customers for extra charges they "accidentally" added to their bills.

    The bandwidth cap and extra charges are no different. While it is definitely anti competitive it's really just about the money.
  • 1 Hide
    alidan , March 18, 2011 2:31 AM
    matt87_50should just be pay by the byte...now THAT is fair!most people who cringe at the idea do so because they assume that means "expensive" but it doesn't have to be. the important thing is that its fair.


    if i have to pay by the byte, than i want to pay for how much that byte actually costs to deliver, not how much they want to deliver that byte.

    look at netflix, they serve out more movies on demand than you have bandwith for, and they do it for 8$ a month. serving out that data must not cost all that much, so how is it that i pay 80-90$ a month for a lesser service than that?

    how much does 1gb REALLY cost? im guessing that 1gb= less than 20 cents

    you want to charge me 1 cent per 50mb, i'm ok with that. it would probably be cheaper than what i pay. but you CAN NOT have a tiered pricing structure like that, you HAVE to get the best to everyone. you also have to give us a 1gb monthly free amount, to cover mindless chatter that happens regardless of if we do anything online or not.

  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 18, 2011 2:33 AM
    Well, I live in Brazil and my ISP has no cap for my service...
    BUT the quality is questionable...
    The nominal speed of my link is 16Mbps, but on real it has been 5 to 12 Mbits...
    This suck, but I have to admit that I'm glad I don't have a cap!
    With this kind of cap I would be screwed....
    =D
  • 1 Hide
    g-thor , March 18, 2011 3:11 AM
    Sorry to have to ask this, but is English the author's second language? If not then he needs to either re-read his articles or have a proofreader look them over. The errors made it hard to read, and in some cases difficult to discern what he meant.

    Other than that, an interesting article. I tried to find out what our average use is, but our ISP doesn't seem to track that (an "unlimited" account at the moment). We have three adults using the service, with home based offices and I do a fair bit of gaming. I think ours would be closer to your usage than to 18GB per month. A thought provoking article. Thanks.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , March 18, 2011 3:23 AM
    Well, actually..you forgot a step in there.

    ATT claims 18GB for an average "user". Note the singular use there, not plurarl. So if we take your estiamted 130GB a month for your 4 teenage children, and 2 adults (you and your wife) = 6 people. So, 130GB divided by 6 household users = 21.7GB. So...not so far off of ATT's esimation.

    Now, having said that, data caps are still a step backwards, and ATT once again proves that they are just greedy pig dogs who have no care for consumers. Ever try to talk to their "tech" support? It's a bunch of devoled primates flinging their primoridal juices at one another. No one remotely intelligent answer that phone.

    I can only hope we still get one or two companies who will fight the bandwidth caps. Lets face it, Time Warner fought off the municiple wifi project of a small town so it wouldn't have to compete, and Comcast likes to tell you how to download and for how long.

    Dark times indeed...

    -Ru
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 18, 2011 3:39 AM
    I'm not an AT&T customer, but still hate to see what would come of this. I would imagine they'll see a sharp decline in subscriber numbers if more than expected are affected. I wouldn't even know how to figure out my monthly bandwidth usage, let alone keep up with it on a day-to-day basis to make sure I don't go over at some point during the month.

    What does scare me is that if this is deemed successful for them, other ISPs will likely follow suit.
  • 0 Hide
    desperadaux , March 18, 2011 4:00 AM
    The fact that you DON'T KNOW what your using daily/weekly or monthly leaves you wide open and vulnerable to the whims of your ISP. I cut the TV cable 2 years ago. With low cost adapters, I connected my home theater and TV to my PC. Most network content is free and readily available as well as pay channels like HBO, Starz, etc. Even live streaming although several sites have recently been seized. And movie torrents. Want to know your usage? Google "Networx" and download their free Data Usage Monitor.
  • 0 Hide
    Soul_keeper , March 18, 2011 4:20 AM
    My isp used to cap me at 500MB per day ...
    After they suspended my account for the second time I switched to unlimited business
    Also they prohibited "servers of any kind" for residential accounts

    It costs me 4x as much per month, but I don't have to worry about them bothering me
  • 0 Hide
    jj463rd , March 18, 2011 4:23 AM
    There should be no bandwidth cap at all.One should be able to have unlimited usage 24/7 period regardless of Internet Speeds.
    If ISP's advertise faster Internet Service the service should have corresponding increased usage since the plan is more expensive.
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