How Bandwidth Caps Force Us All to Become Network Cops

This isn’t a post about an industry issue so much as it is a post about my personal experience with ISP bandwidth caps — which are commonplace in Canada, where I live — and how easily they can turn you into a network administrator and traffic cop, whether you like it or not. It all started simply enough a couple of weeks ago: I got a notice from my broadband provider, Rogers Communications, that I had hit my bandwidth cap for the month, which is 95 GB. Like some other providers, Rogers pops up a notice at the top of a browser window letting you know that you are either getting close to passing or have passed your limit.

No big deal, I thought — I’ve hit the limit before, although not often. I download movies and music from time to time, and I have three teenage daughters who also download music, TV shows and so on. I figured someone had just gone a little overboard, and since it was close to the end of the month, I thought it wasn’t anything to be worried about. The next day, however, I went online and checked my usage (Rogers has an online tool that shows daily usage), and it said that I had used 121 GB more than my allotted amount for the month. In other words, I had used more than 100 GB in less than two days.

I just about spit my coffee all over the computer screen. How could I possibly have used that much? According to Rogers, I owed $181 in overage charges. Luckily there is a maximum extra levy of $50 a month (just think what it would cost if I was subject to usage-based billing). When I called a technician, he said my wireless network was open — that is, unlocked. I recalled having switched routers after one went bad, and thinking (stupidly, I admit) that leaving the Wi-Fi unlocked wasn’t such a big deal. I live in a residential community and everyone has wireless networks; I figured the odds of someone piggybacking on my network were slim.

So that was it, I figured: someone had downloaded a ton of movies or whatever using our wireless. So I immediately set up WPA-2 encryption, the highest level my router allows, and set a strong 64-character password.

Fixed, right? That was a week or so ago. The other day, I got another popup from my provider, saying I was over my limit for the month again. This was just six days into the new month, and I’d already somehow used up 95 GB of data. What could possibly have happened, I wondered. Had someone cracked my wireless password already? Had one of my machines been hacked and turned into a zombie on some spammer’s bot-net? I reset my router’s password and checked the firewall for suspicious activity but couldn’t see any.

Just to be on the safe side, I logged out of Windows on two machines (I have seven in the house, including laptops, desktops but not including iPads and smartphones) and booted into Ubuntu, which is less prone to attacks.

I asked my daughters again about whether they had been downloading anything, and also my niece, who has been living with us. All had denied doing anything more than watching some YouTube videos or downloading some songs. Oh wait, said one daughter — I did download some episodes of a TV show the other day using uTorrent. How big a file, I asked? Turns out it was 13 GB, and uTorrent was probably uploading for days as well. And she had been using Frostwire as well, which is a file-sharing service that connects to Limewire and BitTorrent networks.

At this point, it looks like uTorrent and/or Frostwire was the problem. They likely kept running in the background for days, even though my daughter said she was sure she had closed the programs. And Frostwire also has one specific feature that can make this very painful from a bandwidth-usage perspective: it searches for what it calls “ultra-peers,” which is any computer with a really fast Internet connection. Then it turns that into a super-node and starts using it to share as many files as it can.

My daughter was hugely apologetic. She thought she had closed the programs, and I didn’t think to check until several days had gone by — plus I had been convinced it was someone hogging the Wi-Fi or that a computer had been hacked and turned into a zombie, which is surprisingly common. Mixed in with my frustration was a sense of embarrassment: I am the IT guy for the household, the guy who supposedly knows how computers and networks function, and who keeps everything running smoothly. How could this have happened on my watch? It was like burning the casserole, but ten times worse.

In addition to making me more determined to keep an even closer eye on every computer (all seven of them), this whole process reinforced for me just how much we have grown used to having theoretically unlimited Internet access, and how bandwidth caps — even large ones — effectively force us all to become network administrators and system cops, running firewalls and tracking bytes throughout our homes. Increasingly, that means tracking that usage on multiple desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, wireless music players, streaming video boxes and other devices that all have Internet connections, IP addresses and wireless connections. Welcome to our broadband future.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr usersRay Dehler and Ryan Franklin