When you sign up with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to have access to the internet, one of the things that you will probably see listed as one of the distinctions between the different accounts that they offer is the bandwidth that their different offers allow. When comparing plans from one ISP, the more bandwidth that an account offers the higher the price that the ISP will usually charge for that plan.

So what exactly is the bandwidth and why should you care how much your plan includes?

In order to display a web page your web browser must first download all of the files that the page uses to your computer where it then uses them to display the web page. Each of these files has a size and when you add together the sizes of all the files that make up a web page that gives you the bandwidth required to download that web page.

There are a couple of modifications to this. Firstly the browser will store most of the files it downloads for several days (you can control how long via the browser preferences). If a file needed by a web page has already been downloaded to view a page previously then it doesn't need to be downloaded again (saving on both time required to load the page and also the bandwidth used to display the page).

The other exception is with streaming audio and video files which are played as they download and which are not then saved on your computer. These use bandwidth progressively as they play with the total bandwidth required to play the file being equal to the file size.

Any other internet accesses that you use such as viewing your emails will also use up as much bandwidth as the total sizes of all the files that need to be downloaded.

If you add together all of the sizes of all of the files that you download over a month that will give you your download bandwidth usage for that month.

Uploads to the internet also use bandwidth. This is most obvious when you are sending an email but displaying a web page also has to upload information to the internet in the form of a request to download the required web page.The amount of upload bandwidth that you use will generally be a lot less than the download bandwidth that you use in the same period.

One thing to watch for when comparing the bandwidth allowance of plans from different ISPs is that some only count download bandwidth in what they count while others also include the upload bandwidth that you use. If you expect to use close to the bandwidth limit that your plan allows then including or not including the uploads may make the difference between your staying within the plan limit and exceeding it.

What happens when you exceed your plan limit can also vary between plans. Some plans will automatically drop the speed of your connection once you reach the bandwidth limit and you will have a really slow internet access for the rest of the current billing period. Other plans will automatically apply a charge for extra bandwidth used and your next bill will be significantly higher due to the extra bandwidth you have used. Some plans offer you the opportunity to choose which will apply and may also offer the opportunity to upgrade to a plan with a higher limit but may limit you to making that decision before you exceed the limit of your current plan.

Before you can determine exactly what bandwidth you require you really need to have some idea of how you expect to use that internet access and many just starting out on the internet as well as some who have switched from a slow speed connection to a much faster one may seriously underestimate the amount of bandwidth that they will use. There are a number of ISPs that offer introductory plans with extremely small bandwidths where you are just about certain to exceed the bandwidth limit unless you are using it just to read the occasional email that you receive. The only way that you will be able to determine exactly what bandwidth you need from your internet plan is once you have been using the internet for a while and have monitored your usage to see just how much you are actually using. Most ISPs will provide an option on their site to allow you to see just how much bandwidth you are using so that you can see if your usage is always within that supplied by a smaller plan allowing you to downgrade to that plan when the opportunity arises or whether your usage is growing and will soon exceed that of your current plan allowing you to upgrade to a higher usage plan at the appropriate time.

That doesn't help much for those just starting out but then if you are reading this on the internet then you have already purchased internet access and may already be locked into a plan with a given ISP. Where that plan is insufficient for your needs the contract may mean that you have no choice but to upgrade to more expensive plans offered by that same ISP where had you known your usage beforehand you could have selected a more appropriate plan with a different ISP. You are most likely to fall into this trap if the plan that you select offers less than 4Gb of bandwidth. It doesn't take long at all (particularly if you access a few multimedia files from the web) to have bandwidth usage approaching 1Gb per month and since your bandwidth may vary somewhat from month to month you will want a plan that offers at least a few Gb in reserve so as to allow for those months where your usage is a bit higher than usual.

One other aspect to bandwidth when comparing plans is where the ISP quotes two figures for bandwidth - one for peak times and another for off peak times. All this means is that they are tracking your bandwidth usage in one of two different counts depending upon the time of day that you are using the internet. The exact times that different ISPs consider to be off peak will vary between ISPs with one perhaps considering it to be midnight to 7am while another might consider off peak to be between midnight and noon. You will need to take this into account in comparing their plans as well since in order to make use of the off peak portion of your total bandwidth you will actually need to be using the internet during that time period.


This article written by Stephen Chapman, Felgall Pty Ltd.

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