Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

My ISP has placed a bandwidth cap on my connection. What should I do?


My ISP recently informed me that my “unlimited” high speed DSL is going to be capped at 5GB/month. They go on to say the
unlimited provision still applies “for internet browsing, e-mail and intranet access.” Reading the fine print in the new contract I
see that it expressly forbids streaming of videos, downloading of music, videos or games, hosting broadcasts or internet phone

You posted a video (part 1) of how to install Acronis as part of a backup plan. I watched the video. Does that count against my
5GB/month limit? Suppose I have to watch an instructional video several times to jot down info? How can I know exactly how much
bandwidth I’m ABOUT to use before actually watching the streaming video, downloading the music or video, etc? I read your article
about using perfmon but that
seems to track usage after-the-fact.

Are all ISPs moving in this direction (to cap bandwidth)? Any words of wisdom?

Bandwidth caps are nothing new, but they do seem to be becoming more common. I’ve not actually heard of it on a hardwired DSL
connection, but it doesn’t surprise me, I guess. It’s much more common in the wireless world – my mobile broadband connection, for
example, has that same 5GB/month bandwidth cap.

There are aspects of what you describe that have me sincerely hoping that you misread or misinterpreted the contract. If not,
it’s one of the most draconian set of limitations that I’ve ever run across. So much so, that if it’s exactly as you describe, I’d
drop that ISP in a heartbeat.

But to be fair, while we might question their tactics to address it, ISPs are facing a difficult problem.


The amount of data that is being pumped across the internet is enormous, and it’s growth in recent years has been incredible.

At first, much of that growth was in the so-called “peer to peer file sharing networks”. These tools are designed to make it easy to copy and share massive amounts of data. In recent years, sites like YouTube or Hulu are now bringing on-line video to the masses as a true alternative to things like TV. Add in sites like iTunes and Amazon and more are selling downloadable music and videos as an alternative to physical CDs and DVDs. You can quickly see that the demands for pushing data through the internet are growing at an incredible rate.

“The amount of data that is being pumped across the internet is enormous, and it’s growth in recent years has been incredible.”

This has ISPs scared.

ISPs are scared because not all of them have the infrastructure – the hardware – to actually provide all that bandwidth to all their customers should they all start downloading more and more video. It’s not practical to make sure that there’s enough to cover it either; it would be exorbitantly expensive to do so. They may be building and adding capacity, but there’s only so much they can add, and only so quickly. The result is a compromise.

And part of that compromise might be asking you, their customer, to slow down.

OK, so “ask” might not be the right word – in your case they’re apparently telling you what you can, and cannot do.

The good news is that 5GB is a lot of data. You probably won’t risk exceeding that with just email and normal web surfing. (In fact, if I understand your question correctly, these actually remain unlimited for you – they don’t count against your cap.)

But as you point out, videos – like mine – probably count. And a lot of video watching can add up to a lot of data.

How much? That’s hard to say. One recent video I posted is 3.5 megabytes in size – that means you could watch it 1,000 times and still not get reach your bandwidth cap. On the other hand, downloading a few 100 megabyte movies could get you close pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, while ISPs may implement these caps, rarely do they include the tools to monitor where you are with respect to the cap. My mobile broadband provider, Verizon, will show me how much I’ve used, but as I understand it they’re the exception rather than the rule.

And as you say, even then it’s all “after the fact”. You don’t know how much bandwidth you’re using until after you’ve used it.

Measuring your bandwidth usage at home is difficult, particularly if you have more than one computer. There are some tools that will measure the usage of one computer, but when you connect multiple computers to a single internet connection things get difficult. Routers typically do not have the capability of measure usage.

So, what to do?

First, check with your ISP to see what kind of tools they may have to tell you where you are with respect to your bandwidth cap. If they have one, check in every day, or every few days as you use your internet connection, so you can get a sense for how quickly you’re approaching the limit.

Second, to put it somewhat obliquely: download once, watch multiple times. By that I mean that it’s common to watch a video multiple times, often by revisiting the site that hosts it. Depending on your system configuration and things like the size of your browser cache, each one of those visits could cause the video file to be downloaded again and again. Instead, see if there are explicit options to download the file to your computer’s hard disk so that you can view it multiple times without needing to download. This isn’t always available, and not always obvious, but when available can be a real bandwidth saver for videos that you expect to view multiple times. (I’m still experimenting with how best to provide video on my site, but I do know that there are tools that will allow you to download YouTube videos, for example.)

And of course, don’t run peer-to-peer file sharing software if your ISP has a bandwidth cap. That’ll get you to the limit fairly quickly.

But ultimately, if your ISP provides no tools to monitor your usage as they see it, then I’m not aware of any reasonable solution to actively monitor your usage from your end with the goal of avoiding that limit. Perhaps readers will comment with additional ideas on this.

Now, about your ISP.

The statement that has me most concerned is this: “Reading the fine print in the new contract I see that it expressly forbids streaming of videos, downloading of music, videos or games, hosting broadcasts or internet phone use.”

If they actually prohibit you from streaming videos or downloading music, videos or games, then they might as well be prohibiting you from using the 21st century internet. That’s when I say run away – find an ISP that “gets” the internet and how it’s being used.

On the other hand, I’m hoping for one of two misunderstandings:

  • You are actually prohibited from being a source of those types of things for others. What the wording really means is that you cannot set up a server on your internet connection and allow others to download from you.

  • The wording doesn’t prohibit you from downloading those types of things, but is just trying to be explicit about what counts. Since your question implies that your ISP can somehow identify “internet browsing, e-mail and intranet access” and leave all that as truly unlimited, they’re probably trying to tell you about the other things that aren’t unlimited and can count against your bandwidth cap.

Both of those are pretty reasonable, so I’m hoping that’s what your ISP actually intends.

It might be worth contacting them to clarify.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

28 comments on “My ISP has placed a bandwidth cap on my connection. What should I do?”

  1. I seem to find those kinds of limitations to only be guidelines. You probably can stream video, play games, etc, without that much worry but you cant do it 24/7….

    For example, if your ISP sees you get to 8GB 1 month, they probably wont care… 11GB, maybe still no….. I wouldn’t really worry about it for just regular use.. Not unless they explicitly charge you for every MB you go over…

    ISPs like Optimum Online actually cap things like your upload speed to 15KB/s if they see you uploading too much. Nowhere do they say how much their target is, but they do say its prohibited to use your connection in this type of way and its still their right to cap you.

    It’s pretty funny, but I tend to dump those types of ISPs although they “say” they are unlimited and promote a certain speed, yet go back and end up capping you if you use it too much. It’s not worth it… There are plenty of real Unlimited ISPs in the US (not so much in European countries I believe, but still some).

    I would be very careful about ignoring bandwidth caps as merely guidelines. Your ISP could cancel your service, or as in the case of some, charge you an exorbitant rate for the amount you go over your limit.

  2. I’ve little sympathy for DSL providers for the following reasons

    1. In the past they have vastly oversold their networks, in effect selling capacity they didn’t have, while at the same time putting off needed network maintenance and improvements. Caps are one way of avoiding the day of reckoning. In my state, the Public Regulatory Commission sued the largest DSL provider and won, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and mandated improvements. Last year the top DSL download speed in my neighborhood went from 3.5Mb/sec to 20Mb/sec and uptime improved as a result.

    2. Their afraid alright – afraid of competition. I’d be willing to bet that the cap doesn’t apply to premium services sold by your by DSL provider, like VOIP and streaming video. They simply don’t want to have to compete with similar services available for free or fee on the Internet. And finally they don’t want to have to compete with you as they increasingly use a share of the available bandwidth for dedicated service like subscriber and on-demand video.

    3. Let see, in some places in my city the DSL provider advertises 50Mb/sec download speeds. If I had a 5GB cap, that would be 13.7 minutes of download at full speed (34.1 minutes at the rate I can get at my home) per month. See anything wrong here?

    4. Those Terms of Service limitations are common, virtually every carrier has them. There a legal fail-safe, rarely invoked but useful to “wack” a customer as needed.

    So what can you do? Here’s my top three:

    1. In most locations, the DSL provider is a publicly regulated private telecommunications company. Complain in writing to your local PRC and commissioners.

    2. DSL providers by law are required to sell at cost part of their bandwidth to third-party resellers. Depending on your local, you may be able to find a DSL reseller with no cap and pay less than your paying now. is a good source of information on what’s available nearby.

    3. At 5GB/month, your in the realm of a cell phone with a good 3G connection. If you can live with 5GB and already have a cell plane and data plan, tethering may be an option.

  3. Check your router settings. Newer routers provide traffic or bandwidth monitoring. My new router provided by ISP does provide bandwidth usage over a period of time whereas the older one doesn’t.
    Since it is in the router it will sum up the entire LAN’s usage of the bandwidth.

  4. My ISP is a satellite internet provider…and I knew going in that there was a bandwidth cap of a gigabyte a week. Didn’t know what that meant until it bit me and they slowed my connection speed from 512 kpbs to 28 kpbs until the ‘rolling total’ was under the weekly minimum. One day I called Netflix to find out what one of their streaming 1-hour shows was in bandwidth and it was 1 gigabyte an HOUR, so I passed. But in rural areas, our ISP options are much more limited, especially when you have to buy the equipment.

  5. Firefox and Download Helper provide an excellent way to save youtube or similar videos. If you use Windows, you might need Gomplayer to view the saved video.

  6. Depending on your needs for speed/volume of moving data, getting a business account with a static IP address is another alternative. I’m a small businessman doing a lot of remote work, I also have a server running a private FTP site for access when I’m away, and several pc’s in the office browsing for information for various reasons. It was a good solution for me.

  7. Let’s see. R.I.A.A. announces they are going to slow down taking individuals to court and start taking ISPs to court (read deeper pockets). Download caps start appearing. Liability Issues? Did they offer to lower your rates as well?

  8. My ISP, Comcast, recently capped my bandwidth as well but sent a letter assuring subscribers of the thousands of music files and dozens of movies that could still be downloaded without using but a fraction of the cap. It sounded like so much BS to me. What is so disturbing about the caps is I have never been able to get a clear, straight forward answer whether certain types of legit downloads affect the cap. For example, I have a TiVo and TiVo has a feature that allows movies to be downloaded to the unit from Amazon. Does doing so go against the cap? I can’t get a straight answer. TiVo offers a lot of other content, some of which I would use, but won’t because I don’t trust Comcast not to play “Gotcha!” with me and hit me with outrageous over limit fees. I am also a NetFlix subscriber and have avoided using their Watch it Now feature that sends video to my PC for the same reason. I use Steam, an online service from which I buy and download PC games to my computer. If I replace my computer or a drive, I log into my Steam account and re-download the games. At this time I have maybe 10 games which size-wise exceed the 5 GB cap alluded to. I have avoided buying new products from them because of the cap. I use an online backup service for my computer and store a fairly large amount of data with the. Does that count against me? I don’t know and neither does Comcast customer service, but I am thinking of cancelling my subscription just in case it does. And what happens if I have to do a full restore? I have a pair of 500 GB hard drives, the main one being about 70% full and the slave being about 50% full. The cap creates another problem for me because online backup services won’t allow backup of any executable files. I use Mozy because once they did and allowed external drives to be backed up while Carbonite allowed neither. I buy 80% of my software as a download and with restrictions against backing up such files I am looking into renting online storage that charges for storage space and doesn’t restrict file types. I don’t know how doing that will affect my cap either. I use VOIP from a competing service and tried to find out if that usage would affect the cap, and again, no straight answer. Comcast was already charged with degrading the quality of VOIP services that competed with their own and throttling the connections of any subscribers using Bit Comet, both actions they have sad they stopped doing. With the push for net neutrality and the successful effort that stopped the telecoms from flat seizing control of the Internet, I see the caps as another way they are going to squeeze every cent from the consumer they can. The utility and importance of the Internet and it’s initial reasonable cost and wide open ways got millions of us to make it a vital part of our lives. Now that we can’t imagine doing without it, we are susceptible to the whims and fancies of those who administer it. It’s important to join and support the groups and organizations who fight to keep the Internet fair, open, and affordable. We certainly can’t expect the ISPs to have anything but their bottom lines at heart.

  9. A bandwidth cap has always been in place on internet connections as measured in bits/second for a given modem and facility. Now we have a second type of “bandwidth” cap measured in bits/month. It would be less confusing to use a term that distinguishes the second from the first, e.g monthly usage cap, download cap or whatever, rather than bandwidth.

  10. Bandwidth caps are indeed becoming more common. I don’t stream that much media, but I wanted to use Mozy to backup my files and the bandwidth cap would make that impracticable, even though my limit is a generous 60 GB (I asked and it applies to uploads as well). A single byte above that and my ISP would penalize me by slowing down my connection speed up to 90% for the remainder of the month (while paying for the full bandwidth, of course). I bought two external HDDs instead, but of course they are both here at my place and all would be lost if there was, say, a fire (God forbid!) or a burglary.

    But I want to give some tips about downloading videos (if that’s the culprit): there are indeed a lot of programs out there that download YouTube videos. But most on-line videos out there (including YouTube’s) are either in Flash Video or MP4 format, and they can be more easily downloaded with either Real Player 11 (including the free version) or Firefox 3.5 (or both).

    Real Player is easier for non-techie users because it installs a plug-in that causes a small floating window to appear next to the video; one just clicks once on it, and it downloads the video. In Internet Explorer, it’s instantaneous because it just copies the already downloaded video from the browser cache (even though I avoid IE as much as I can); in Firefox, it will download the video again. Be warned, however, that the excellent Secunia Software Inspector keeps alerting me that Real Player has unpatched security vulnerabilities and may compromise browser security.

    Firefox 3.5 (not earlier versions) downloads videos natively. If you use a download manager like GetRight, which allows you to set up multiple simultaneous transfers of file parts, the download can be much faster than with Real Player or any other YouTube utility. The problem is that Firefox 3.5 names the downloaded files very awkwardly (like “videodownload001.flv”), and in pages where there is a HQ or HD version along with a lower resolution one, it downloads both. So, it requires some attention and some extra work to rename the files to something more significant.

    Finally, there is the problem that .FLV files (the Flash Video file format) are not natively supported by most media players. Again, Real Player will play them, but there are those security vulnerabilities, and when not properly configured, Real Player can also be very intrusive and consume system resources even when not in use.

    So, you can either download the open-source ffdshow codec pack, which will allow you to play Flash videos even in Windows Media Player (but may cause problems with some media types, and may be a little heavy on the system), or use a conversion utility like the excellent and free Format Factory (warning: contains adware you can opt out during install, but be sure to pay attention to it) to convert the video to a more universally supported format like AVI, MPEG or WMV.

    So, there are solutions, but they may not always be so straightforward and may require some technical knowledge.

  11. If I put a YouTube video in my Favorites folder on the site, does each viewing of the video from the Favorites site count towards my download usage allowance with my isp? Presumably the video is streamed each time I view it, but does this actually count as downloading? If it does, what is the difference between streaming and downloading in this case?

  12. Here we go again!
    The term bandwidth has had a clear unambiguous definition for at least 50 years, ie, bits per second (or its equivalents which is an instantaneous measure of capacity.
    But now it is being used to describe the quantity of data being transmitted over a relatively long period of time, ie accumulated volume.

    The application of the term “bandwidth cap” as used by the ISPs is actually the limitation they apply if a user exceeds their allocation of data volume accumulated over the billing period. That is, the ISP reduces the bandwidth made available to the “naughty” user for the rest of the period or for some other rolling period.

    So I blame the ISPs for being lazy and misusing the term bandwidth; From their perspective a user exceeded the accumulated volume allowance is a “bandwidth capping” case beause that is what they impose as a consequence. But a more accurate and less confusing term would be “exceeded volume”.

    But the REAL issue is that the vast majority of ISPs do not provide you tools to monitor your usage, or even provide you an advance warning. The warning message could easily be remedied by legislation, or fair trading requirement.

    Increasing internet usage and the inevitable rise in exceeded volume events needs to be formally addressed.

  13. I wholeheartedly agree with Bevin Pettitt that this is something that leaves the consumer totally in the dark. I asked Comcast if there was a way I could see or get some type of documentation showing what my monthly usage was in relation to the cap. Of course no such data is available to me either by phone call or by billing statement. This is akin to speed limit signs all being taken down but speeding laws and fines still enforced. It’s obvious these caps can affect legitimate sites like online backup services, video download sites like Amazon and Netflix, and gaming distributors like Steam. Isn’t that action creating a restraint of trade and wouldn’t these companies have a legal standing to do something about it? With more and more publications go to online downloads this problem with unrealistic caps is going to create problems for consumers. Doesn’t Amazon’s Kindle use downloads for its books? What about all the online billing and bill payment services? Surely all that contributes. And doesn’t SPAM now truly have a financial effect, especially in quantity? These arguments went completely under the radar in all the information I receive from the various groups i belong to that fight for Net Neutrality and fair usage.

  14. No one has commented on VOiP as the writer mentioned “no internet phone use” Perhaps the ISP is trying to eliminate competition as most likely they offer the same service at a higher price with some limits on features. Could this be an “anti-trust” issue?

  15. Leo, although the questioner mentioned their limit was 5GB/month, you might want to stress that that limit amount, used on a daily basis, is really not that much, if you are into videos and music.

    5 gigabytes sounds like a lot of leeway but it all boils down to daily usage. If you tell the questioner he could view a 3.5MB video 1,000 times, keep in mind that your usage for the month is a “goner”.

    The usage should be spread out in order to not be chastized by your ISP for overusage of bandwidth, otherwise, an unsavvy person might think “Wow, 1,000 times!” …. hence, he goes and downloads 100 videos…

  16. I use one of the sattalite companies and this month I was told that I had exceded my threshold of 17000Mb (yes megabytes) for the month. I have not done anything different than I have been for the last 12 mos. I told them they dont give me a cut rate when there is an outage and cant use the internet nor do they give any kind of credit for any of the downtime that is not my fault. As a punishment, my speed went from 216kps down to 23 kps for the download. I told them that was worse than dial up and maybe I should go back but then it takes me out of this centuries need for internet. I am glad I only have this one computer and not a child that plays games on here. I hate being restricted and told I cant use the internet to get movies, software, shareware, watch utube and so on. I mean, what is it all out there for? I feel deprived and dont know what to do with it. For the first time I was excited about getting the live feeds from The Big Brother reality show on Real Player. Now, after I paid for the season, I cant watch it because it eatsup my bandwith allowance. Something has to give.

  17. Shirley Howard: Boy, I’d sure like to know what satellite carrier you have that would give you 17,000 megabytes per month (17 GB’s).

    I’d like to switch over.

    I don’t know of ANY satellite company that gives you THAT much! LOL

  18. We have the same problem in the UK with ISPs regularly imposing caps. My ISP is BT whose basic broadband package has an allowance of 10Gb/month which, for me, is fine. My daughter, however, uses Sky which imposes a cap of 2Gb. Your article is also correct in that ISPs, universally it seems, offer no automatic means of monitoring which, frankly, would be very simple for them to do. To get around this I use a utility called Bandwidth Monitor which, the misnomer notwithstanding, does exactly that. Some monitors use a good deal of memory but, at about 3,000K, this one seems acceptable. Go to bandwidthmonitor dot com for more information and download.

  19. Well i just experience the bandwith limitation. i had ten days to go my subscription but i was cut off because my ISP said i’ve over use my bandwith which is about 4 or 5gb. then i wonder what i was downloading.ISPs should provide a way for us to know how much bandwith we use and the one available for use.

  20. Ok the satellite carrier is Wild Blue. If you think you cant go over 17G a month have at it. I know it is high and I dont understand why I have capped. I dont download movies or music. I sometimes watch a utube that is sent through my email. I only do facebook. I finally was able to get big Brother live feeds from real player that I paid for for the 2 mos they are on. It asolutely ate it up. I had no clue that there was a cap. I guess this old woman didnt read it or didnt understand it but the pro package says “you can download movies, music, games etc”. I thought when I got it I would have wonderful service. I have only hit a max of 512mbs when it is advertised twice that high. I guess I am lucky to get this much after looking at everyone elses cap but honestly, how can a person use this much? I was back at 60% usage in 2 days. I have never worried about it in the last 10 mos. Just this month.

  21. Shirley,

    There is info in the below pdf that shows how to get to your 30-day usage in WildBlue:

    Here’s a link in case you would want to monitor your usage:

    This way, you would actually have something to compare with WildBlue’s “usage” as opposed to what you’ve documented and argue with them on this. Good luck.

    Unless you’re using a lot of streaming video/audio from the internet you should be okay normally.

  22. i suggest using att dsl i have it and i set up a wireless net work for all my comp.(i have 5)it does not currently have a bandwith cap but it might soon

  23. I don’t have a cap that i know of. I download plenty of things, that would limit me pretty fast. Movies,games, music, ect. But to download things like youtube videos so you can watch them mutiple times, i use Downloadhelper in Firefox.

  24. I have Hughesnet pro pak. ($69.99 mo) Hughesnet allows unlimited usage from 11pm to 4am (pst) which doesn’t go against your cap. Plus, they offer a ‘status meter’ which monitors your usage on a running basis. (24 hour cycle)
    They also give one free reset token per month plus you can buy them as needed.
    Haven’t bumped the cap yet.
    The only bad is sometimes there is a lag greater than they say but it isn’t that big of a problem.
    Leo, Thank you for the great bank of info and the reader forum which adds even more.

  25. Shirley, are you sure your cap is not 17,000 Megabits? Mb and Kb and Megabits and Kilobits, GB, MB and KB are Gigabytes, Megabytes and Kilobytes. Download and Upload speeds are given in bit ratings in my experience. 17,000 Mb is just over 2 GB.

  26. No caps are mentioned in my contract with Thailands true move company – my contract says unlimited bandwidth, allows streaming etc, and offers 3.5 minimum to 7 Mbps download speed.
    After 15 days with p to p torrenting, my speed has been lowered to 0.25 Mbps from a normally 3.6 Mbps on average. The contract is unlimited bandwidth, and then when i call, they say if they see me download a lot they don’t limit the amount of megabytes allowed to download, but they limit the speed to slow me down.. so how come contract can say 3.5 mbps minimum to 7 mbps max, and then serve me 250kbps? Unlimited means unlimited, and there are no subclauses in the contract at all. I believe this is fraudulent and illegal. 3 companies in Germany lost millions after being caught illegally secret capping of bandwidth and had to repay not only the single claimant who took thgem to court, rather also all other customers they had capped. This resulted in a lot of their money being lost. Stand up for your rights and dont pay for what they dont give. I for one am seeing a lawyer tomorrow about this matter, as my ISP has not stated anything about capping in the offer or contract, so are illegal in this action.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.