Beginning today, AT&T will be implementing a monthly data cap plan for its DSL and U-verse customers. AT&T DSL customers will have a 150GB per month limit, while U-verse customers receive a slightly roomier 250GB monthly cap. Subscribers that exceed these limits will be charged $10 per each additional 50GB over the limit.
This decision very well could mark a turning point in history, and likely will encourage other major Internet Service Providers to join in. To put that in perspective, Comcast has roughly 16 million Internet subscribers, and AT&T’s recent plans will easily double that to north of 32 million U.S broadband customers that are now subject to data caps.
Data caps are not exactly new for US broadband users; Comcast cable customers have been subject to monthly limits on data usage ever since Comcast was forced to come clean about P2P and potential VoIP throttling since 2007. Time Warner Cable did attempt to implement absurdly low data caps ranging from 5GB to 40GB a month in late 2009, but consumer backlash and pressure from several congressional sources eventually forced Time Warner Cable to reconsider. And although such data caps may be horrendous for some US broadband users to contemplate, those in Canada and elsewhere in the world would be quick to point that they have had to endure such data limits for years, typically at significantly lower cap limits at that.
Until now the majority of United States customers have been fortunate to not have this concern, but AT&T’s recent decision may be enough to set a trend. From a personal perspective, based on our usage, 250GB isn’t a harshly low limit to have per month, but again we are a two-user household. Larger households, families, and situations where multiple roommates share the same network connection may very well run into trouble, though.
Online gaming has never been much of a bandwidth-intensive task, but there is no shortage of others that all contribute to data usage. While playing multiplayer, it is commonplace to use one of many voice chat programs, such as Mumble, which can add 50MBs an hour in addition to the game itself. Real-time communications such as VoIP calls and video conferencing require higher amounts of bandwidth, especially so for high quality video. YouTube browsing alone constitutes a measurable portion of Internet usage a year and quickly adds up. The worst offender would be emerging HD 1080P YouTube videos, which can easily total over 250MB in size each.
We haven’t even addressed the largest sources of Internet use listed by various traffic analysis sources yet; namely on demand videos and movies. Whether using Cackle, Hulu, or Netflix, this portion alone can constitute over 20% of Internet usage by some statistics. Those familiar with Netflix know that the service adjusts the quality of the streaming service depending on the home user’s available broadband speed. For people enjoying 5 megabit or better download rates, the maximum potential quality of an HD movie stream is 4800 kilobits a second, or in other words two gigabytes an hour. Other scenarios such as locally hosting files for remote accessing or download when traveling abroad are potentially worse.
Ars Technica goes on to list the potential reasons and incentives as for why AT&T and other large ISPs would wish to impose data caps, but if you think the cost of operation is one of them, you might be surprised and should give the article a read.
It is unfortunate that AT&T is the only option for many U.S. broadband users, with even more AT&T subscribers having only one other broadband alternative, namely Comcast. Nevertheless, as more cloud services, backup, music, and movie content transitions to the Web, we can be sure this issue will only become more critical in the next several years.