If you are a moderate or heavy online user, you have probably bumped up against data caps at some point. Just what's the story behind these seemingly arbitrary usage limits and how do you work around them?
OK, What IS a Data Cap?
A data cap is nothing more than a limit to the amount of data you can transfer through a communications channel over some period of time. While providers could set limits per hour or day, data caps are almost always defined now as so many MB or GB of usage per month. Your allocation is reset at the beginning of each month or 30 day period. You draw down your allocation over the time period as you surf the web, transfer photos, videos or data files, or backup your computer to the cloud. If you run out of data before you run out of month, there are consequences.
Why Caps Are Imposed
Data caps, especially tight ones, tend to be imposed on channels where capacity is limited. There are so many users and they each would like to have the link to themselves. If there isn't enough bandwidth to go around, the capacity that is available has to be rationed among the pool of users. This can be done by apportioning the bandwidth in Mbps among the pool of users. The other option is to let each user have the max bandwidth they are paying for but limit how much they can use the channel. That keeps heavy users from "hogging" the resources 24/7 so that lighter users never get much in the way of access.
Where do you find these data caps? Wireless services have had them from the get-go. Satellite is really another form of wireless and has similar usage limits. Wireline and fiber optic services have much more capacity than wireless channels, so the data caps are set much higher. While you might be limited to 20 GB per month on a LTE cellular wireless plan, that limit is more like 500 GB on a cable broadband plan. Only the heaviest Internet users will likely hit the cable usage limit so most people think there really is no limit.
It's important to note that data caps are really there to police fair usage of a limited resource that is shared among many users. All consumer broadband services and their equivalents sold to businesses are shared bandwidth services. The service provider buys an unlimited usage telecommunications line and then divvies it up to serve its paying customers. Each customer is assigned a bandwidth limit of "up to" so many Mbps and a usage limit of so many MB or GB per month. This arrangement keeps the most customers happy most of the time.
What Happens If You Go Over the Limit?
There are various ways of enforcing fair use of an Internet channel. Cellular plans started out setting a fixed usage limit and then automatically charging for every MB or GB you went over the limit. The danger of a plan like this is that you may not know how much you've exceeded your allocation until you get an astronomical bill. Most providers will give you the courtesy of a notification when you approach or exceed your limit to avoid the sticker shock.
A more draconian method of dealing with overages is to simply cut off service once the limit is reached. At that point you have to manually contact the provider and buy some extra capacity to get through the month or cease usage.
Neither of these usage limit methods goes over well with broadband customers. A kinder, gentler arrangement is to forget about cutting off service, but limit your access speed once you hit the limit. You might get throttled back to 10 percent or so of normal service bandwidth until your account resets at the start of the next billing period. This is unpleasant, but at least you can always get online to some extent.
What About Unlimited Usage Plans?
Check the fine print on your contract. You're likely to find something that specifies a "fair usage" limitation. Sometime they don't specify a hard limit but say that the provider has the right to impose fair usage restrictions. In fact, you may have all the capacity you want... at least for awhile. The fair usage clause tends to be imposed if you are someone who is using the service far and beyond what the bulk of other users are doing, or if the provider lands a lot of customers and doesn't have the ability anymore to give them all they want.
Services like satellite and cellular wireless have definite limitations due to the number of radio channels they are licensed to use and the carrying capacity of the particular technology they are using. Higher speed doesn't automatically get you higher data caps. If you aren't careful, that higher bandwidth will simply allow you to use up your allocation quicker.
Is There Any Way Around Data Caps?
You might not know this, but there are dedicated private lines and Internet connections that don't have any data limitations at all. These are the professional grade copper and fiber lines that the service providers themselves order and partition to sell to you and a hundred or a thousand other customers. Businesses, but not residential customers usually, can also order these telecom services and have all the capacity to themselves.
Typical line services are T1 at 1.5 Mbps, the classic standard, T3 or DS3 at 45 Mbps, OC3 SONET at 155 Mbps, Ethernet over Copper at 10 to 50 Mbps, and Ethernet over Fiber at 10 Mbps to 10 Gbps. These are called "dedicated" line services because all of the resources are dedicated to YOUR business. That means you get 100% of the line speed all the time. It also means that you get all of the line capacity. You can load up a 100 Mbps Ethernet line to full capacity for the entire month and not pay a penny extra. Your monthly lease cost is fixed.
How About Costs?
Well, that's the rub. You will pay more for a dedicated line service than you will for a shared bandwidth service, as you'd expect. Even so, there's little value is paying a low ball price for a service that doesn't give you the capacity you need. If you wind up paying overages every month, it might make a lot more sense to simply pay up for a line that doesn't have overages. You can then forget about having to watch your usage all the time or limit the activities of your employees.
When Does Dedicated Line Service Make Sense?
If your application naturally taxes the capacity of a communications line, such as a service or content provider or a company that has critical business applications in the cloud, you may be happier with dedicated line services beyond the unlimited usage. Dedicated lines have constant rather than varying bandwidth, plus low latency, jitter and packet loss.
What type of bandwidth service is best for your company and your applications? Check dedicated and shared bandwidth service options and get free consulting help now to help you sort through the options available for your business location.