Broadband allowances: know your limits

With all the festivities coming over the next few weeks, you could be forgiven for accidentally going over your limits – broadband, that is, not booze.


There are probably more web-connected devices on Christmas lists up and down the country this year than ever before. And consumption – downloads, that is, not plate-loads – will be boosted because these days we’re not restricted to the Christmas television schedules set out for us by the powers that be. Now we have we have films and programmes available on demand, all potentially eating into our broadband allowances.

So, broadband is likely to take a hammering over the next few weeks, and if you have a miserly monthly download allowance, you risk exceeding your limits.

So what’s a decent-sized, realistic allowance? What happens when you exceed your allowance? And is there anything you can do so that you don’t need to worry about download limits? Read on and I’ll explain.

Know your limits

When you’re looking to sign up for a new broadband deal, it’s easy to get caught up in how fast a connection the provider can offer you. It’s all well and good having a lightning fast connection, but if you have a low monthly download limit then you’re going to burn through it pretty fast.

A cursory search using our broadband comparison tool returns tariffs with limits of 2GB, 5GB, 10GB and 20GB – which might not mean a great deal to you.

So put it this way: an allowance of 2GB each month would allow you to download around 20,000 web pages or 400 songs, or to watch around four hours of video content. This (particularly the number of web pages) might sound like more than enough, but in reality it’s a very small limit.

For example, if your children have asked Father Christmas for the new Wii U games console this Christmas, you should know that it comes with a day-one software update which weighs in at a whopping 1GB – consuming half of your monthly allowance in one fell swoop.

Or if you’ve got one of Apple’s iDevices on your list this year, you should also be aware that its fairly regular iOS software updates often measure in at around 1GB too. In theory, you could blow through an entire 2GB allowance in just one day thanks to software updates.

The other potential problem is watching video on demand. Say you miss the Downtown Abbey Christmas special because you’re in a post-Christmas dinner coma and you want to catch up later on ITVPlayer – an hour’s worth of streaming in standard definition can use up 600-700MB of your allowance.

What happens if I exceed my download limit?

This varies from one broadband provider to the next. Usually, the first time you exceed your download limit you’ll get an email, letter or text message telling you so, and warning you that if you continue to exceed your limit you’ll be charged.

BT, for example, charges £5 for every 5GB you go over your monthly limit – but charges will vary between providers.

More likely, the provider will take it as an opportunity to upsell you to a tariff with a higher monthly download limit, which may actually save you money if it looks like your new tablet or games console is going to take you over your limit each month.

Accept no limitations

The obvious solution is to go for a tariff without any download limits or usage caps, and there are plenty to choose from. Unlimited broadband tariffs used to come at a hefty premium, but prices are coming down all the time.

For example, TalkTalk is running a nine-month half-price promotion on its Unlimited Broadband & Calls tariff where you’ll only pay £3.25 for speeds of up to 14Mb and no download limits. Line rental at £14.50 per month applies, however.

BT offers unlimited downloads at speeds of up to 16Mb for £26 a month (plus line rental at £10.75). At the moment you’ll pay the discounted price of £20 for the first three months.

If you live in an area where you can get super-fast fibre optic broadband, Virgin is offering unlimited downloads and speeds of up to 60Mb for £5 a month for the first three months (with a Virgin phone line at £14.99 a month) and then £19.50 a month thereafter.

Be aware that some ‘unlimited’ tariffs come with a ‘fair usage’ caveat which means your downloads could be limited, or your speed ‘throttled’ down. Unlimited tariffs do give you a wide berth though, and you’re unlikely to invoke a fair usage policy unless you’re using peer-to-peer networks to share movies or you’re a heavy online gamer.

Keeping an eye on limits

BT lets you see how much data you’ve used at any point in the month by signing into your account on its website, but there are tools out there you can download to monitor your data usage.

BitMeter, for example, is a free download which monitors the amount of data being sent and received by your computer, and runs quietly in the background allowing you to have a check whenever you like.

You can view real-time and historical data all in your browser and even set alerts to notify you if you’re approaching your download limits.

There are a lot of tools like these available for free online, but not all are particularly user-friendly. If you’re not especially tech-inclined then you’re best off using your provider’s own monitor.

Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing.

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