How Bandwidth Caps Hurt Your Mac & What Apple Can Do About It


As a responsible Mac user, I usually feel immune from most Internet threats…except for one. Using my Mac exactly as Apple (s aapl) intends it to be used sometimes renders my Internet connection virtually unusable for up to a month, and costs money to fix.

Could this happen to you? It depends on whether your Internet provider has a bandwidth “metering” policy (or “cap”). These caps are one of the most controversial topics for Internet users in 2009, and can put a significant crimp in your Internet use. Recently, Congressman Eric Massa (D-NY), who represents the Rochester area, introduced the “Broadband Internet Fairness Act” (H.R. 2902) (PDF). Massa got involved soon after Time Warner Cable (s twc) unsuccessfully used Rochester as a test market for metering. Under this bill, the FTC would have veto power over such caps and thus allow them only under certain agreed-upon scenarios.

In my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, the standard level of cable Internet service has a limit of 3GB of bandwidth per month. Overage is charged $2 per GB. Downloading a single movie from the iTunes store will blow through an entire monthly limit, and even the cable company’s most expensive “premium” service only allows 50GB of bandwidth. In 2009, that’s not really much bandwidth at all.

Once you’ve hit your limit, you have to severely restrict usage until the next month, or face a large bill. Your Apple TV remains stale without its new content, your iMac stops downloading podcasts, and your iPod weeps because it’s sick of the same old music you had last month.

Apple is the leader in multimedia content creation; new Mac users are always pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to buy from the iTunes store, or create their own content. A common question we get in our local user group is “I’m not sure what I did wrong, but all of a sudden I have a substantial overage bill from my cable company.” Of course, the user did nothing wrong, other than subscribe to a few podcasts, and perhaps download a new Apple software update and buy some shows with iTunes! The Mac is also blessed with great online backup services like MobileMe, yet when our user group did a presentation on backup strategy, I had to warn novice users to be careful lest their backups end up costing them an arm and a leg in bandwidth overage fees!

While on the surface this appears to be an isolated issue with a few providers, it is not. Bandwidth metering is a growing threat to cable Internet users in many cities. The American Cable Association (ACA) has come out in support of bandwidth caps, and the former chair of the ACA, Patrick Knorr, who implemented bandwidth caps in Lawrence, stated in multiple interviews that flat-rate Internet pricing is an “unsustainable” business model.

Unfortunately, using the Internet normally with bandwidth metering is also unsustainable. When Mac owners are worried about downloading movies, doing backups or performing system updates, that hurts the Apple brand. Apple is continually innovating new ways to make the Mac OS the best Internet operating system, creating a whole ecosystem with iTunes, MobileMe and iLife. All of these great products rely on the ubiquity of the Internet. When Internet providers start making normal Internet use an expensive proposition, Mac users lose.

Apple should lead the way and come out against bandwidth caps. Given that many of the offerings on the iTunes store actually compete with cable TV, Apple should be vigilant that cable companies do not use bandwidth metering as a way to stifle alternative ways of viewing content. Additionally, Apple should add a bandwidth meter to the Airport routers; that way the bandwidth use of entire households can be tracked. If bandwidth caps are inevitable, Apple can arm the consumer with data to monitor their usage and dispute discrepancies with their ISP.

Apple could be an ally for consumers (even the “PC guy” in the commercials would be helped!), while at the same time standing up for its own brand and vision of consumer Internet use. If you disagree with the idea of bandwidth metering, make sure your voice is heard by giving customer feedback to your own Internet provider and writing your member of Congress. I had better end this article now…bytes and bits equal dollars and cents for me, unfortunately!