Kids home for summer? Watch your data caps.

A quick guide to understanding and managing your home's Internet data cap.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Kristen Chase, reviews kids touchscreen applications at, plays games on an iPad with her four children, Drew, Margot, Bridget and Quinlan.

The start of summer was evidenced when my Internet connectivity slowing to a maddening crawl because my kids, no longer in school, had ravenously pounced on the house's bandwidth.

The change was like going from being the only person in a huge, empty room doing a gymnastics routine to suddenly being in an airless mosh pit where people faint from the squeeze.

I didn’t know what a “broadband cap” was until I blew mine. A few days after school ended, Cox Communications, which is my Internet service provider (ISP), started sending me e-mails, telling me I was over my monthly limit. Service agents on the phone explained that my service would be “terminated” if I didn’t purchase more bandwidth.

Because of this situation, I have spent the past 24 hours learning what should be called “Broadband for Dummies.”

Here are the broad strokes of what a “broadband data cap” is all about.

The speed at which a website, image, or video downloads is often determined by the bandwidth of the connection between your computer and your ISP (whether it be Cox, Comcast, Verizon, or one of the many others).

ISPs get the information at tremendous speeds and then ration it out to subscribers. When you sign up for an Internet plan, there are two important numbers: speed (how fast data flows in) and cap (how much data is allowed to flow in each month). However, if you exceed your cap, as I did, your ISP might slow down your speed. 

As I sit here playing hide-and-seek with my connectivity, I am reading a notice from Cox telling me that I have a 300-gigabyte plan. I used 302 gigabytes last month.

Some might think the ISP would simply bill for the overage. Oh, no, those days are gone.

An assistant from Cox cable explained over the phone that the company will send several such warnings to give you a clue that you need to upgrade your plan to more gigabytes. In Cox's case, a higher cap also comes with a faster speed, which is nice, but expensive.

Until I make a decision about upgrading (or until the next billing cycling arrives), Cox has throttled my speed.

The whole situation feel like watering the lawn on a hot summer day. Because I wasn't paying attention to how much water went shooting out of my sprinkler, the ISP has now turned the water pressure way down, leaving me with a drippy puddle instead of nourishing my parched grass.

My ISP tells me it will give a few warnings of over-usage before it cancels service entirely, leaving me to wither and die in a download desert.

So back in February, when the kids were in school, I could work online, scan the Web for images, run the Google-driven Picasa photo program while using my Windows Live Mail, and not have everything grind to a halt.

Since school ended for the year, the sounds of four sons on laptops mingles with my own strangled cries of “Lag! Aieeeee!”

Many a League of Legends game has fallen to Internet service lag due to overloaded bandwidth.

To avoid service and sanity interruptions, it may be time to check with your ISP and make that temporary, summer upgrade.

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