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6 ways to monitor internet bandwidth usage

As internet connections get faster and faster they enable use to do more on the internet. In the space of a few years we have gone from dial-up connections with a modem at just 56kbit/sec to always-on broadband at speeds of up to 20Mbit/sec.

This means that activities that were impossible before, such as watching high quality video and listening to music over the internet, are now accepted as just normal and they hardly raise an eyebrow. Except at your ISP perhaps.

They are struggling to cope with the bandwidth that people are using and they limit and cap heavy users, throttling their internet connection and even threatening to terminate their connection if they don't stop.

On the one hand we are encouraged to buy music music from online stores and download all our audio files andto listen to streaming music and internet radio stations. Television companies encourage us to catch up with programmes that we have missed by watching them online, streaming video websites encourage us to upload our videos and to view other peoples', we are egged on to upload our photos to online albums and to manage them and view them on the web, and we are swamped with companies offering online storage and backup tools that copy the valuable files and folders on our hard drives in case of a disk distaster.

All these activities consume huge amounts of internet bandwidth and your ISP might not like the amount that you are using each month. Are you going over the limit? Will your connection be capped or throttled?

Although some people have unmetered internet connections and can download as much as they want, others are capped at a certain level. At the cheaper end of the market there are internet deals that while costing very little, do impose limits on the amount of data that you are able to upload and download. You might be limited to 1, 5, 10, 15 or even 20Gb of data each month. A limit of 1Gb? Really? Actually, anyone with mobile broadband either with a desktop PC, or more commonly with a laptop computer, will definitely have a data limit. Some mobile broadband plans limit you to just 1Gb a month and there will be high charges for exceeding the limit. Even home users can be limited to 5-20Gb a month.

Broadband caps at Thinkbroadband.comIf you are on a limited access contract, do you know how much internet bandwidth you are cosuming? Are you using too much?

How many gigabytes or megabytes are left this month? Can you afford to watch that TV programme online that you missed or will it put you over the limit?

You obviously need to keep an eye on the amount of bandwidth you are using each month. Firstly, you can ensure that you don't go over the limit, and secondly, you can put off things till next month.

For example, if it's the last week of the month and you are near your limit, you could put off renting that high definition video until next week and the start of a new month.

Unlimited abuse
Not everyone has a limit on the amount of information you can upload and download through their internet connection. However, even if you are on an unlimited tariff, nothing is ever unlimited and the word is one of the most abused around. If you think that you have an unlimited internet connection you should test the theory and try to download an unlimited amount of data. Of course, there are physical limitations and you can only download at the maximum speed of your connection, but if you work out how many gigabytes that would be each month you might be suprised by the size of the number.

Your ISP will soon complain and might even threaten to terminate your contract if you continue to use your unlimited internet as if it really was unlimited. This is because ISPs don't actually mean that your connection is unlimited, even if they say that it is in their adverts!

You wll find that there are clauses in the terms of your broadband contract that prevent you from using too much bandwidth and if you are deemed by your ISP to be an excessive user then the ISP could limit your connection speed to reduce the amount that you can download. It will be called something like a 'fair usage' policy and if the ISP thinks that you are using more than your fair share of the bandwidth then they have the right to terminate your connection. So even people on unmetered tariffs from their ISP need to watch their internet usage. It's impossible to say how much bandwidth usage is too much, but you should monitor your bandwidth and see how much you are using. If the figure looks high, such as a gigabyte a day, then watch out. Your ISP could throttle your connection.

ISP tools
SurplusMeterIf your ISP places a limit on your internet usage they should really provide you with some way of finding out how much you have used each month, otherwise how are you supposed to know whether you're over the limit?

Some ISPs do provide the means to monitor usage, but unfortunately, not all of them are so considerate.

You might find that your ISP has a customer log-in page where you can access your account and see your bandwidth usage.

The ISP might even provide a utility that you can run on your computer. This will sit on the desktop or in the Dock or with your other Dshboard gadgets and display internet usage.

Whether you have a bandwidth limit or not, you should check out what facilities your ISP provides for monitoring your usage. If no facilities are provided you can use one of the utilities mentioned below. The screen shot here is of SurplusMeter, which is one of the few free ones, so you might want to try it first.


This is a simple utility that works quite well and it enables you to monitor any connection type. Modem, ethernet, AirPort and network card are selectable from a pop-up menu. You can enter your monthly download allowance and optionally include uploads in the total too. The information displayed is good and you can see the total uploads and downloads this month and today, your average daily usage, average daily allowance and the amount remaining. It's good and it's free. 0.2Mb.

Menu Meters

This is a great utility that adds system monitors to the menu bar that show the upload and download speed, CPU usage, memory and disk usage. Clicking the upload/download meter lists the network interfaces in the Mac and shows the amount of data uploaded and dwnloaded. Unfortunately, it only shows the totals since the last boot, which makes it OK for monitoring what you have used today, but it won't show you your monthly usage. Free.

iStat Menus

This is like Menu Meters on steroids. It's a brilliant utility for monitoring the Mac and it provides a huge amount of information on the CPU, memory, drives, network, temperatures, fans and so on. It shows the upload and download totals since the last boot, but not the monthly usage, so it is limited as a bandwidth monitor. Free.

Activity Montitor

Activity Monitor in the Applications/Utilities folder also shows the upload and download totals since the last boot too. It's OK if you never turn off your Mac, but otherwise useless for monitoring monthly bandwidth usage. Free.

ProteMac Meter

This utility provides highly detailed reports of network usage - including internet usage. It may be a bit too detailed for some people when they just want a simple figure showing the monthly or daily bandwidth used. Good for technical experts. $29.95 / 19.23

Net Monitor

Like ProteMac Meter, this is an advanced utility for monitoring network and internet activity. It logs all traffic and generates HTML traffic reports. It can calculate the traffic between dates. Good for technical experts and quite cheap. 6.48

Minimise internet usage
If you have used up most of your internet bandwidth and you are nearing the limit set by your ISP, what can you do to minimise you usage? It is essential that you cut down the amount of data that is downloaded and you can make a few simple configuration changes that will help. For example, you should avoid system updates for a start. You don't want to download tens of megabytes of updates and instantly bust your bandwidth limit! Of course, you can't put off important updates forever, but if you have used most of your bndwidth for this month you could put off a large OS update till next month.

You could disable images in Safari, Firefox or whatever web browser you use. In Firefox go to Preferences, Content and clear the tick against Load images automatically. There's a useful Exceptions button that allows you to specify websites that are allowed to show images. Safari has a Disable Images option on the Develop menu (go to Preferences, advanced and tick Show Develop menu iun menu bar).

If you have mobile internet with a laptop computer and a low bandwidth limit you might want to use these settings permanently and to just turn on pictures when you actually need them.

Monitoring problems
These utilities are all great for monitoring the internet bandwidth usage on a single computer, but it is becoming increasingly common for people to have more than one computer in the home. You might have one, your kids might have one, and you might have a laptop too. A wireless router allows them all to access the internet. You will need to have monitoring software installed on each computer and you'll have to manually get the usage on each one and add up the total yourself.

That's a bit of a pain in the neck, but the only way around the problem would be if your router can monitor the bandwidth. All internet traffic must go through the router no matter which Mac it is on. However, not all routers have this facility.

Another potential problem to watch out for is Mac to Mac transfers. These utilities shouldn't really be called internet bandwidth usage monitors and they are actually network monitors. They track incoming and outgoing data and they don't distinguish between Mac to Mac file transfers over the local area network and internet traffic. If you are going to transfer files from one Mac to another you must temporarily disable the monitor on both Macs. This goes for streaming music and video too. If you don't, the monitor will record it along with the regular internet usage and it will therefore over-estimate the bandwidth used.