A bandwidth cap is a limit placed on the size and speed of data transfers by an Internet service provider (ISP). Bandwidth caps can be placed on wired connections such as cable and digital subscriber lines (DSL) and on wireless cellular access. Restrictions placed on Internet usage generally depend on the country or region in which the customer is located. Countries with less broadband infrastructure generally allow for stricter limits on customer activity. Some ISPs that began by supplying unlimited bandwidth to customers later established restrictions.
A bandwidth cap is usually based on an Internet customer’s monthly consumption and is generally measured in gigabytes (GB) of data. If the user exceeds his monthly bandwidth cap, he may be subject to extra fees or his connection may be throttled for the remainder of the month. Throttling refers to the ISP’s practice of slowing down a connection for all or certain types of data. Fees are generally based on how many GBs of data the user consumed that exceeded his monthly allotment. In some cases, these can be quite high relative to the regular monthly cost of the Internet connection.
In the early days of the Internet, usage was generally limited by time rather than bandwidth. Users with dial-up connections were often limited to a certain number of hours each month until customer complaints about these restrictions led to unlimited access in many areas. As ISPs transitioned over to high-speed Internet services, they often advertised unlimited access for new users. With the increase in broadband penetration, content providers began to offer services that consumed considerably more bandwidth than was possible with dial-up connections. In some areas, this led to broadband customers transferring more data than expected, and ISPs began to impose caps on their customers.
Bandwidth caps are a controversial issue with multiple stakeholders arguing for their own interests. ISPs have claimed that increased demand for content such as high-definition video and the use of peer-to-peer networking services are overwhelming their ability to deliver a consistent connection to the end user, thus necessitating the implementation of a bandwidth cap to improve the experience for the consumer. Some online content providers are concerned that their business models are jeopardized by any limits on the consumer’s ability to access their products and services. Other media industries support caps as a way of restricting peer-to-peer file sharing, which they believe is facilitating the copyright infringement of music, games and movies. Finally, consumer activists are concerned that access restrictions are being used as a means of increasing profits for the ISPs and may result in the elimination of certain types of Internet services.