Broadband caps, ringtone prices, and Finnish genes

This week’s Independent Science & Technology articles are up: I’m looking at whether capped broadband is a good deal (I suspect it’s not necessarily; half of people download more than 1GB per month, which is where caps start, and the mode – most common – is probably about 3GB).

Russ Coffey looks into ringtones, the most expensive music on earth: an album at ringtone prices would cost £400.

And in science, Steve Connor examines why the Finns have Europe’s lowest life expectancy.

Update 14:30: as Rupert comments, and I’ve just had confirmed, the 1GB cap on broadband *includes* data uploaded from your machine. Not obvious, and very likely to catch you out if you send some photos to granny or file-share a bit or look after a website.


  1. Good article on capped broadband, although not surprising to anyone who’s ever asked a mobile network operator why they refuse to sell phones with data meters built-in. (I asked a handset manufacturer why you couldn’t find out how much data you’d actually consumed: “We have the software,” they said, “but the operators made us remove it. And no, you can’t quote us on that.”

    Two points that may be worth bearing in mind: first, that ‘gigabyte’ limit is even worse than you might think, as it’s the sum of incoming *and* outgoing data. That’s a double whammy for anyone who likes filesharing, sending out digital photographs, online gaming or Skyping. You know, the sort of things they sell us broadband to do.

    The other is that there are a number of useful little programs that let you find out just how much you are using – my favourite (Windows only, I’m afraid) is Netmeter, which is free and has more features than you ever knew you wanted.


    (ummm.. can’t seem to find preview, so apologies for any formatting errors)

  2. Charles

    A few points on capped broadband.

    First, you make the common mistake of quoting 1Gb or 5Gb. This actually means Gigabits, not Gigabytes, which is GB. Typically bits are used for speed (eg a 1Mb service), and Bytes for data transfer, and most caps that I have seen are in fact GBytes.
    The more we can all get this accurate, the more we will help the public come to terms with these confusing abbreviations we IT people have come up with.

    Second, I actually think 1GB is a LOT of data for most people. I have been using the first Pay as you Go broadband service in the UK from for more than 16 months. I work from home and am in most days. During that time I am online all the time with email and web. In the evenings, my partner and I will often be online together on our wireless powerbooks (sad lot). I even do some radio program downloads and some iChat Videos (up to an hour), and of course, I do software downloads for my Mac on a regular basis. In those 16 months I have exceeded 1GB just once.

    Now having said that, I agree with some of what is being said here – these caps are almost traps, and they can result in people changing their usage behaviour negatively (eg trying to avoid hitting the cap). Which is bad. That’s another reason why Metronet still has to be the best deal around, and I can never understand why it is not picked up as such by the country at large. Why? Because, Metronet do not cap your USAGE, they cap your CHARGES. Metronet starts at just 10 plus VAT per month for just 200MB of data (I do know some former dialup users who don’t exceed this!). Each additional MB costs less than one quarter of a penny. So, at 1GB, you bill is 11.80 plus VAT (still the best around!). But at 1.1GB, your bill is 12, and even better, if you do have a crazy month and use more than 4.7MB, your maximum cost is 20.21 plus VAT. The 1Mb speed service works identically with an additional 4.26 per month charge.

    With this method, you know your maximum (and it is less than just about any uncapped service), whatever you use. There is no disincentive really to downloading a lot (a 100MB download “costs” 22pence if you want to think of it that way). For anyone who takes a few weeks holiday during a year, Metronet would allow savings on those months you were away even for a heavy user. But on my experience (and other users), I think it is THE best value for the vast majority of net users today, and deserves more attention (and not being lumped in the same group as the CAPPED services). Incidentally, Metronet provides up-to-the minute statistics on your usage, so you always know where you are.

    Check it out (I’m just a happy customer with 2 of their lines!)


  3. I did point out in the piece that it’s gigaBYTES. Maybe a style point there. [I’ve now updated the original post to GB rather than Gb – thanks.]

    As to whether people will hit the cap… well, as Rupert commented, and I updated, it’s been confirmed to me that the limit _includes uploads_. If you’re looking after a site, send a few photos off to some friends, go for movies, and so on, then it will rack up. Quite quickly. Imagine how it would be if your machine got a spam-generating Trojan. Eeow.

    And also, you’re one user. (Or with your wife, two.) In my article I’m quoting the overall experience of lots of users of Telstra in Australia. When you look at those figures (it takes a crazy amount of Googling and newsgroup reading, so I won’t even try to give pointers) and also look at the prices that the providers have for their capped and uncapped offerings, then you realise where the real mean must lie.

    Absent some insider data from a broadband provider (and believe me, I did try to charm it out of them), I think this still holds true: 55 per cent of users will exceed a 1GB cap.

  4. Charles

    Rupert seems to have covered the point I was going to make – monitor your usage before opting for a capped service. I’ve tried NetMeter and was delighted with the stats it provided; but I found that sometimes a day’s figures would go missing when the PC (with w2k Pro) was shut down. This didn’t appear to happen if the application was manually closed.

    The alternative that I’m using now is another freeware program: Down2Home from This seems to provide (for me) consistent results. It’s easy to install and configure, shows usage (download, upload and total) graphically or as a report that can be exported as a csv file, has a low RAM footprint, and passes all the Spybot and Adaware checks.

    One day, when I’m less undecided, I’ll go for a capped service and save some money!


  5. Charles

    >Absent some insider data from a broadband provider (and believe me, I did try to charm it out of them), I think this still holds true: 55 per cent of users will exceed a 1GB cap.

    I’m really not sure its true. The first people to move to broadband were those that REALLY needed it. Their usage (24 hours a day games, P2P etc) would certainly exceed caps (though games need fast ping time rather than bandwidth). Those that are swelling the ranks of broadband users now are those who could often live on dial-up packages, and I would bet that the current number of broadband subscribers, over 80% do NOT exceed 1GB per month . Now those writing here might say that’s crazy, but we are a tiny minority of the geekish. Having run a campaign to get broadband for my exchange, I know that the usage of just about all the people who signed up will be quite low. That’s because at first they start doing what they did on dial-up, and only over time do they start doing things that only broadband can do (eg radio, video, etc). My own experience of 16 months of pay-as-you-go is that 1GB is a surprising amount of stuff. Just how many photos for instance could you upload for that? I have uploaded my usage stats for this month to-date into my public folder iDisk which I can point you to if you’re interested (please email me). And I’d be happy to tell you what I did on most of those days – including an OS clean install and then automatic software update. Believe me, I THOUGHT 16 months ago that 1GB wasn’t much, but I know now that it is.

    Anyway, try asking Paresh Morjaria, boss of Metronet what usage profiles they’ve seen. I’m sure he’d cooperate.

    Also, as I TRIED to point out (but with my extreme wordiness, failed), there are services out there like Metronet which might appear to be in the “capped” category, but they are not. I think such a method is to be encouraged – there is no entrapment or sudden cost hit, it is a nice straight line from 10 a month to just over 20 a month and that’s it. Sure if you want a predictable amount each month, variability may be an issue. But is there a service out there that offers a predictable amount each month for less than 20 allowing you to use what you need that month? I’ve not found it.

    And I didn’t mean to be a pedant about the Gb/GB issue. I’m frustrated with our own industry for letting this stuff happen. When services are marketed as 1Mb and 2Mb, and then caps are talked of in Gb instead of GB, some people might just think that they would fill the cap in 1000 seconds of downloading, when in fact it is more like 10,000 seconds of full-on downloading. I found a large number of people when running my broadband campaign completely confused by bits and bytes and compounded by Kilo, Mega and Giga.

    As I say, if you’re interested in knowing my stats, I’ll point you to a simple formatted text file, and explain what goes on. I agree with making people aware of the pitfalls of capped services – and I’m particularly keen that people see that “capped” services can in fact be quite different. But I do believe that for a vast majority of people on dial-up today, capped services can offer a low-cost, low-risk way of going broadband and I’d rather see this country with 10million broadband users than 2million. As usage changes, the caps will get better, and as long as we expose the scams, people’s use can evolve.


  6. Hm, am still not convinced that broadband in any shape or form has anything to offer non-commercial users. I am happy with dial-up and what I pay for it and do not want to go down the broadband route though I fear most providers will eventually cease to provide the dial-up option.


  7. Lauri

    > am still not convinced that broadband in any shape or form has anything to offer non-commercial users

    What? It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. For 10 a month (if you really don’t think you need it much, then start with Metronet at this price), you get your home phone working again when you’re online – no missed calls etc. And, you’re always on. Why is that so good? Wake your computer from sleep, and in a few seconds you’ve downloaded your email, sent that one email you forgot, or checked out the traffic situation before you make a journey. You will start using it more and more “what’s the name of that film with Tom Cruise in?”, etc etc. Then start to do things you wouldn’t consider with dial-up today (home shopping with Ocado, listening to Radio programs you missed).

    I could not do without it.


  8. Lauri, you really should experience the difference. As Ian says, broadband just changes the way you use the computer. Which is why I’m counting the days until I can get it at home. (Well, letting a little PHP script count them – I have less important things to do.)

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