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 $40, or $60, or $80 you shuffled away to your favorite 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 $10 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 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 $20/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 $35 to $65, depending on the speed of one's connection. Going over the monthly limits on either plan summons forth a $10-per-50GB surcharge.
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 $35 monthly.
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 $35 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."
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 $28/mo to $100/mo. Exceeding the cap can cost anywhere from $5 a gigabyte (for the two-GB-per-month plan) to $0.50 per gigabyte. Bell's two DSL-based services give you two or 25 gigabytes of monthly Internet use ($25 or $35 monthly), and its four fiber optic services kick up usage rates to a range of 25 to 75 gigabytes per month ($35 to $56 monthly).
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 $30 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 $44 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 $21 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 $29. Finally, BT lets loose its unlimited data plans for a total of $45 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 $34 to $73 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.
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 $48 to $82), 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 $32 to $48 monthly.
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 $10 monthly to $30. The $10 service comes with a peak and off-peak bandwidth cap of five gigabytes in total, whereas the $30 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 $60 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 $80 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: $80 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 $129 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.
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 $31 to $45 (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 $56 to $70, and unleashing the full powers of the Internet into your home in an unlimited capacity costs between $99 and $109.
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 $10 all the way to 200 gigabytes for $165) or a la carte, which comes in at $2 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 $30 per month or the company's "Full Speed" offering for $41 per month. Then add on the data! This ranges from half a gigabyte of data, which sets you back an extra $2 per month, to 10 gigabytes of data, which costs an extra $15 per month.
For more data, Kinect does offer a Full Speed 100-gigabytes-per-month option. That'll set you back $149 every 30 days. And the company does offer an unlimited, Full Speed data plan option. For whatever reason, it's priced at $105 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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