Q. My Internet provider is planning to charge customers for the bandwidth they use. I'm sure I don't use a lot of bandwidth. But I leave my PC on almost all the time. And I leave my e-mail on full- time. Am I using lots of bandwidth? Should I turn off my e-mail?
A: Based on the information you provided, you are using very little bandwidth and will not be charged extra for your usage. Unless you are engaged in frequent file sharing through peer-to-peer networks, you cannot easily exceed your Internet service providerís (ISPís) monthly cap. In particular, you would have to download a lot of movies. The ISP caps are provoking some outrage in the media, but the caps are really quite generous.
ISPs are beginning to offer online usage meters that show customers how much bandwidth they are using in the current month. Check your ISPsí support Web site to see if the service is available to you.
Leaving your computer on all the time is a good practice. It preserves the life of the components and consumes minimal electricity. The operating temperatures inside your computer commonly exceed 100į. If you turn off your computer, the temperature swings cause expansion and contraction, which weakens electronics. Think about light bulbs: they only burn out when you flip on the power switch. Pushing the power switch is also the last straw for most computer components that die. Keeping your computer on to preserve it is greener than turning it off to save electricity.
Also, leaving your computer on consumes no bandwidth. The exception would be a malware infestation that enables the perpetrator to hijack your Internet usage. If this happens to you, youíll notice drastic slowing in your Internet use and other symptoms.
Assuming you have a firewall and anti-virus software, leaving your e-mail program open is both productive and harmless. You can set Microsoft Outlook to automatically check for incoming e-mail at regular intervals. If, for example, you set it to check every 15 minutes, the monthly total of your bandwidth usage would be less than 1% of your ISPís cap.
File sharing is the biggest common bandwidth hog. Streaming media is the second biggest common use. Video uses much more bandwidth than just audio. Still, normal consumer use of Internet bandwidth is not considered excessive by ISPs. You can watch television online, listen to Internet radio in the background while you are working, constantly use e-mail, and legally download music and video without much worry about your ISPís cap. However, if Time Warner Cable is your ISP, you may have cause for concern. Its pricing plans in some areas start at 5 GB per month, which wonít allow for streaming media or downloads. It will accommodate all e-mail usage and other Internet usage. An ArsTechnica article claims that average bandwidth usage is 2.5 to 6 GB per month.
The idea behind consumption-based pricing is that people should pay for what they use. A homeowner should not have to pay the same water bill as a farmer or a water-intensive chip-fabrication plant. Yet, consumption-based pricing is controversial, so many ISPs are avoiding it. All the bandwidth you want for a fixed monthly fee is still widely available.
Consumer surveys show that ISPs (which are often also telephone, cell phone, and cable television providers) rank high among companies Americans love to hate. Monopoly utilities in general have done things to irk customers since the era when Ma Bell was your sole telecommunications carrier and your phone came in your choice of black.
ISPs are not the cause of this debate; they are caught in the middle of it. Media industry groups like the MPAA and the RIAA are pressuring them to clamp down on piracy. ISPs have data that show a very small percentage of users consume a very high percentage of bandwidth. With broadband, your connection is shared with others. The bandwidth hogs do slow your Internet speed. ISPs want to throttle their usage or charge for it to keep other customers satisfied and minimize the attention they have to devote to the media industry.
This consumption-based pricing issue is part of the current net neutrality debate. The FCC and Congress may implement regulations or legislation. Former congressman Eric Massa introduced a bill last year to prohibit caps. He resigned in disgrace, which ended his ability to influence the issue.