Charles Arthur On Technology

Why the cap doesn't always fit the cheapest broadband deals

How cheap can a broadband connection get? The other week, PlusNet put out a press release in which it offered 512kbit/s broadband for just £14.99 per month. Now, that sounds like a pretty good deal, but the £14.99 headline price applies only as long as you don't download more than 1 gigabyte (which a computer scientist would define as 1,024 megabytes, but PlusNet's marketing people have decided is actually just 1,000Mb - a 2.5 per cent reduction) in any single month. For each 1Gb or part of it extra, you pay £1.90.

How cheap can a broadband connection get? The other week, PlusNet put out a press release in which it offered 512kbit/s broadband for just £14.99 per month. Now, that sounds like a pretty good deal, but the £14.99 headline price applies only as long as you don't download more than 1 gigabyte (which a computer scientist would define as 1,024 megabytes, but PlusNet's marketing people have decided is actually just 1,000Mb - a 2.5 per cent reduction) in any single month. For each 1Gb or part of it extra, you pay £1.90.

So, if you're into a bit of downloading, or want to watch some videos that suddenly become feasible to view with an always-on connection, you might find that cheap deal suddenly becomes a £16.89 monthly deal, and if there are kids in the house it could all spiralout of control as they discover file-sharing networks such as KaZaA.

But how many people actually go over the 1Gb limit? PlusNet's website doesn't say. It does say that the limit equates to a weekly "bit diet" of about 28 hours' surfing, plus 15 e-mails with attachments (no size specified), plus 100 e-mails, plus 10 songs or video clips, plus two hours' online radio. That's only an approximate guide - a few big attachments, some hefty web pages, a big Windows or Apple update (SP2, anyone?), plus some online music shopping and you could well be past that number.

By the way, PlusNet isn't the only company that offers "capped" monthly downloads; dozens of others do, including BT. Again, you'll often have to snuffle around in the small print to find out how much extra you'll get charged for going over the limit.

Which brings us back to the question: how many people will exceed it? Someone must know. When you're running a commercial organisation aiming to make a profit, and you offer free and surcharged access, you look carefully at how many people use how much of your access, and work out the price and limits of "free" and "surcharged" areas with great care.

I asked PlusNet how many of their users, on existing contracts, go over the 1Gb limit. After much hemming and hawing, they declined to answer because of "commercial sensitivities", but added "the majority of our customer base tends to operate within the under-1GB to 5GB per month range."

That doesn't narrow it down much. So I asked BT, which also offers a 1Gb capped service for £19.99 per month, what the most common and the mean download amounts were among its broadband users. Some days later, a slightly bemused press officer told me: "I spent a fair slab of last week trying to get an answer to this. And nobody seems to know. The only figure I did get was that 5 per cent of users use 50 per cent of the bandwidth."

Do you get the same message as me? The broadband companies don't actually want us to know how much we use - because then we might choose the package that's right for us, rather than right for their profits.

So I began digging further afield. The best place to look for this sort of data turns out to be Australia, where bandwidth has always been tightly monitored: the undersea cables that transport the majority of data in and out of the country are so expensive to put down that it's easier to control bandwidth by imposing hefty costs on users who exceed prescribed download limits than by installing more cable.

And the experiences of thousands of Aussie broadband users shows this: 45 per cent of people use less than 1Gb per month. And 95 per cent use less than 5Gb per month. Which implies that 50 per cent use between 1 and 5Gb.

Now, you might think that you're not going to be one of that 1Gb-plus 50 per cent. Don't fool yourself. Once you get access to a fast connection, it will suddenly seem like a good idea to get the high-resolution version of that video trailer that you always just shrugged your shoulders at when you were a slowpoke. Broadband encourages downloading.

How much might you do? It's instructive to compare any company's cheapest "no-limit" service with its capped one. BT's 15Gb limit (which would be hard to hit) costs £5 more than its 1Gb-capped version, which charges £2 per extra Gb. So most people probably download about 3Gb per month.

Overall, it's clear you've only got an even chance of remaining within any 1Gb limit once you get into broadband, and that the providers will begin mixing their offerings up even further (there are already more than 600 competing packages) to try to bamboozle us. (See www.adslguide.org.uk for help on picking a package.)

And that will end up with some people paying more than they should because they don't download enough; and others paying too much because they download too much. When that happened with mobile phones, the smart operators introduced "pay as you go" - which expanded the industry enormously. Somehow, though, I don't think it's going to happen with broadband.

PlusNet: www.plus.net; BT Yahoo: www.btyahoo.com/broadband

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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