Monthly Bandwidth Limits On Mobile Broadband, Should You Be Concerned?

Posted: Mar 26 2009, 7:51am CDT | by , Updated: Aug 11 2010, 1:35pm CDT , in Hardware & Peripherals


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Each time I write about a new USB modem or mobile phone that needs a data plan I wonder about consumers that pay so much for mobile connectivity with such high restrictions placed on the service. If I am paying $60 per month for 3G mobile broadband, I expect to be able to actually use the service and 5GB seems bad.

The typical mobile data plan has a monthly download limit of 5GB, which means that after you download 5GB worth of material in any given month you are subject to paying on a per megabyte basis. If you think overages for going over your minutes talking or texting are bag, wait until you download an average file on a per megabyte rate.

Multimedia is huge today and people from all over the world download video files from online (and legal) sources. Things like movies purchased from iTunes, video files sent from relatives in other states, or music purchased online. The average file size needed for basic computer maintenance like driver updates and anti-virus updates figure into the monthly bandwidth limits on mobile broadband plans. Common files like the latest version of iTunes are about 70MB in size. You get roughly 5000MB in a 5GB monthly plan. Maybe the average person won't hit that amount in any given month, but power users and mobile types out of the office a lot do. If you get lots of large attachments on email, you need to be aware of your monthly limits.

Let's say you have a laptop with NVIDIA graphics, the latest driver pack is 122MB. Say you need to download something like a service pack for your operating system; SP1 for Vista was 434.5MB. The file size for the HD Star Trek trailer is about 37MB in size. If you simply download normal driver updates and few small videos each month, odds are the 5GB bandwidth limit will never be an issue for you.

However, if your computer of choice is a multimedia machine, you travel a lot, or just like to download digital movies from iTunes, you can blow your monthly bandwidth limits with two HD downloads. Say you have been waiting to purchase Twilight as a digital download in HD. The file is 3.80GB according to iTunes. After you grab Twilight, you notice you can get the new Bond flick Quantum of Solace, so you download that too at 3.54GB. Those two downloads put you 2.34GB over your monthly limit in one day.

How much extra will that 2.34GB overage cost you? It's hard to figure out an exact amount data overages will cost you when you look at AT&T's website. They list the overage fees in a confusing per kilobyte amount of 0.00048 per kilobyte. To get a more understandable number you have to know how many kilobytes are in a megabyte, and then figure megabytes in a gigabyte to come to a dollar amount per gigabyte. All these conversions are rather difficult and misleading if you ask me.

Compounding the problem with figuring overages is that there is variation in how to figure storage numbers. Technically a megabyte has 1024 kilobytes in it and a gigabyte would have 1024 megabytes. AT&T doesn't specify how it figures the numbers online that I can find, I point this out because it is common for hard drive makers to round the numbers off so if you buy storage a gigabyte is often viewed as 1000 megabytes. We will assume that AT&T is using the 1024 number here and make calculations based on that.

At 0.00048 per kilobyte, the cost per megabyte is $0.49152, or roughly 49 cents per megabyte. Assuming 1024 megabytes are in a gigabyte, you get $490 per gigabyte. Soil your shorts yet? So that extra 2.34 GB of data from you downloading your two HD movies legally will cost you $1,146.60. You may be sitting there doubting my math. Honestly, I was sitting here doubting my math so I called up an AT&T rep to ask what they figured the data overages at.

The rep I spoke with confirmed my math and actually told me that as far as AT&T was concerned, there were 1048 kilobytes in a megabyte, which would mean a gigabyte of data over your limit would cost you a bit over $503. I guess I see now why AT&T puts the price of overages in tiny numbers at a per kilobyte figure; $0.00048 per kilobyte looks a lot better on paper than $503 per gigabyte.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/3" rel="author">Shane McGlaun</a>
Tech and Car expert Shane McGlaun (Google) reports about what's new in these two sectors. His extensive experience in testing cars, computer hardware and consumer electronics enable him to effectively qualify new products and trends. If you want us review your product, please contact Shane.
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