Bandwidth Diet? 10 Tips for Managing Your Capped Bandwidth

AT&T (s t) customers entered a realm on May 2 previously reserved for niche ISPs (like the one in my hometown): bandwidth caps. Starting on May 2, AT&T DSL customers have a cap of 150 GB, and U-verse customers have 250 GB of bandwidth (combined upload and download) per month. Having lived under bandwidth totalitarianism since 2005, here are 10 tips to economize your bandwidth usage and prevent unexpected overages both for the newly oppressed:

1. Watch your bandwidth usage at least once a week and plan accordingly.

AT&T has promised accurate and easy to use bandwidth monitors, and it’s up to the customer to check their usage. In our tech-crazy household, we checked our old cable ISP’s meter once a day, but most users can probably get by with once a week. Watch for Internet spikes and, if you see one, use these tips to figure out what’s up and prevent an overage for that month.

Unlike AT&T mobile voice plans, any unused bandwidth doesn’t carry over month-to-month. That means that if you haven’t used all your bandwidth by the end of the month, it’s time to go use it. Unfortunately, everyone else has the same idea at the end of the month, so often, you’ll notice a slowdown as traffic usage increases.

2. Turn off software auto-updates.

Software updates are handy and often increase reliability of your system, but with large updates taking up 500 MB or more, it’s time to be careful. In a household with a large number of systems, one major release can take many gigabytes. Turn off auto-updates by going to the Apple Menu, then System Preferences, and then un-check “Check for Updates”.

If you want an update right away, instead of using Apple’s built-in updater, go to and download the updates manually on just one system and then copy them to all the necessary computers in your household.

While iOS apps are relatively small, updates in the App Store for OS X are not. Be careful of these updates and only do necessary ones mid-month. Wait until the end of the month, and use your leftover bandwidth for the month, if you have any.

3. Avoid a lot of HD videos

Whether it’s YouTube (s goog), Netflix (s nflx), Hulu or even iTunes (s aapl), most video providers give you the option of HD picture quality while viewing. Before caps, you would choose the highest definition your connection could handle. No more. While a few videos won’t make a difference, when the entire household watches everything at 720p, you start reaching your cap quickly. Carefully consider each video and determine whether you truly need top quality and advise everyone in the household to do the same.

4. Beware file synchronization software.

As a big fan of DropBox, I love being able to sync files between computers both in my house and between home and office. Whenever you use DropBox, SugarSync, iDisk or other services, anytime a file is changed the bandwidth meter is running. That presentation you are working on might only be 20 MB, but each time you save the file, that 20 MB is uploaded and steals bandwidth. If you’re good and save every five minutes, within an hour, you’ll have used 240 MB of bandwidth. Four hours of work, and you’re reaching a gig. Ouch.

Instead of working on a live document within a sync folder, consider saving it to your documents folder and copying it to your sync folder only upon the completion of work. You’ll still have the benefits of the file being stored up in the cloud, but not in an instantaneous (and bandwidth sucking) way.

5. Seriously reconsider your online backup strategy

I’ve written about various online backup services, but whichever one you choose, that first backup you do is a large one! Because the caps consider both download and upload, a moderate backup could quickly fill your bandwidth allocation.

When I started with online backup, I specified smaller folders and a slow upload speed until close to the end of the month. Once I knew how much bandwidth I had left, I added folders and increased the backup speed until the first of the new month, and then began the cycle over again. Sure it took quite a few months, but it also meant I didn’t get dinged with overage charges.

Starting over, I probably would have taken up CrashPlan’s option to send them a copy of my hard drive to do the initial backup. Those who already did an initial backup with an online service should be fine unless they add or change a large amount of data. These people will have to accept additional bandwidth charges each month if they keep using AT&T.

6. Scale down your usage of VoIP and webcams.

These services can be fun, exciting and really useful for collaborative work efforts. Apple’s heart-tugging commercials using FaceTime to bridge the gap between families costs bandwidth. Consider using text when actually hearing someone’s voice isn’t required and consider using video only when absolutely necessary and for a minimum period of time especially with the HD-quality desktop FaceTime.

When doing a “virtual” visit back home with voice and video, start with a video chat so you get that initial warm and fuzzy and then scale back to voice to continue the conversation. The bandwidth you save may be your own.

7. Watch for bandwidth vampires.

Many devices in your home use your Internet connection, even when you may not be aware. Security systems, DVRs, and Blu-ray players all use data when online, and game systems will use bandwidth while you are playing games online. Some of this use may be minor, but you still need to be careful.

Enough of these devices, combined with a high bandwidth month elsewhere, and a few quirks can push you over the edge. For example, one month, our TiVo (s TIVO) was caught in a loop and kept downloading its updates over and over again, and it cost us an extra $20 from our local cable ISP. We didn’t even notice the problem right away because the update was at night. That is, we didn’t notice until we got our cable bill! Both TiVo and the cable company were unforgiving.

8. Careful with those torrents.

Torrents are a popular way of quickly downloading large files over the Internet containing both legal and perhaps questionable content. When downloading a file, your system will also upload at the same time. When you have a complete file, you “seed” it to other systems and you act as an ad hoc server for the file. It’s common courtesy to seed for a while so others may download. Reconsider how long you seed. Leaving a torrent open overnight can use a lot of bandwidth. Most torrent clients allow you to slow down or stop your seeds after a period of time. If possible, per tip 1, wait until the end of the month to do your torrenting, and especially seeding.

9. Close those remote connections.

Remote connection software like LogMeIn, GotoMyPC, Timbuktu and even Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are handy ways of telecommuting and getting work done. Often we get lazy and leave a connection open because we want to be able to start our work instantly and want to avoid the hassles of authentication and firing up applications. Not only is this insecure, but an “always up” connection can suck your bandwidth if left open 24/7. Always remember to log out when done.

10. Secure your Wi-Fi connection with a good password.

There are so many good reasons to secure Wi-Fi, but it’s more important now than ever before. Neighbors may accidentally connect to your Wi-Fi network, and their use of your connection counts against your cap. A bad neighbor may even choose your network over their own because they want to keep under their own cap!

Yes, these tips are annoying, frustrating and extremely miserly. An average light user of AT&T’s service will most likely be fine, for now, and not need to use all these tips (expect for #1). These tips are for “the rest of us” who live in multi-device and multi-kid households and are used to using technology to the fullest. Without some careful planning, you can go over your bandwidth allocation and scratch your head wondering why.

Hopefully, these restrictions will ultimately be seen as a failed experiment to control consumer behavior and extract revenue. As I mentioned before, Apple needs to come out with a public statement against caps, as they are inconsistent with Apple’s long-term iTunes and cloud business strategies. As a user, you should let AT&T know your opinion as well and ask them to remove these odious restrictions. Until such times, these tips should help you manage your bandwidth budget and keep your bill reasonable. Be sure to leave your own bandwidth management suggestions in the comments.