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How to Monitor Your Internet Bandwidth Usage and Avoid Exceeding Data Caps

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Internet connection data caps are becoming more widespread in the US. Internet service providers may claim their data limits are good for “millions of emails,” but emails are small and HD videos on Netflix are much, much larger.

Follow our tips to deal with Internet bandwidth caps to help cut down on data usage, especially when streaming videos. Some ISPs may throttle your Internet connection speed after a certain point.

Check Your ISP’s Web Interface

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If your Internet service provider is tracking your bandwidth usage and holding you to a cap, they probably provide a page on their account website where they display how much data you’ve used in the last month. After all, they’re already tracking your data usage on their end. Cox calls this a “Data Usage Meter,” while AT&T calls it “myAT&T Usage.” Other ISPs call it similar things, generally involving the word “Usage.”

Your ISP’s tool is the best way to stay up-to-date on how much data you’re using. No matter how well you monitor your own data, your ISP will always use their own numbers to decide how much data you’ve uploaded and downloaded.

The downside of your ISP’s tool is that it may not be updated very frequently. For example, some ISP’s may update this bandwidth usage meter every day, although some may update it more frequently. Tools you use yourself can give you up-to-the-minute bandwidth usage information.

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Track Bandwidth With Windows 8

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Windows 8 includes a feature that can track how much bandwidth you’ve used on a connection. It was clearly introduced to aid with mobile data usage and tethering, but you can mark any connection as a “metered connection” to track its data usage.

This feature can be useful, but it only works on Windows 8 devices and only tracks a single PC. It also won’t line up with your ISP’s billing period. It’s much more useful if you’re monitoring a connection that only your device has access to — for example, a mobile data connection built into a Windows tablet.

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Monitor Bandwidth Across Multiple PCs

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We’ve previously recommended Networx for monitoring your bandwidth usage. It’s a free Windows application that allows you to monitor the bandwidth used by multiple Windows PCs. Its most useful feature is that it can synchronize bandwidth reports across a network. So, if you have five different Windows computers on your home network, you can sync them up with Networx to track bandwidth usage across all PCs in a single place. if you just have a single PC, no problem — you can use Networx to track bandwidth usage for one PC.

Unfortunately, this only works with Windows PCs. Networx doesn’t work with Linux systems, Macs, Chromebooks, smartphones, non-Windows tablets, game consoles, set-top boxes, smart TVs, or the many other network-connected systems and devices you might own. Networx is great if you only use Windows PCs, but it’s an incomplete picture otherwise.

You’ll also need to do more configuration to ensure Networx is capturing data for only your local network. For example, if you install Networx on a laptop and connect that laptop to other Wi-Fi networks, you’ll want to ensure Networx is only ytacking data used on your home Wi-Fi network.

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Monitor Data Usage on Your Router

The problem with typical bandwidth monitoring solutions is that they monitor Internet connection usage on a single device. To measure all the data flowing in and out of your home network, you’d need to measure the data usage on your home router itself. Every device, wired or Wi-Fi, connects to the Internet through the router. Tracking data at the router will give you a complete picture.

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The bad news is that home routers generally don’t have this feature built-in. The good news is that you can install a third-party router firmware like DD-WRT or OpenWRT and use bandwidth-monitoring software on it, getting a complete picture of your bandwidth usage.

For example, you can install DD-WRT, access its web interface, click over to Status > Bandwidth, and look under WAN to see how much bandwidth you’ve used in the last month.

If your ISP doesn’t provide a reliable way to track bandwidth and you need to do it on your own, purchasing a well-supported router and installing a custom firmware like DD-WRT is probably the best thing you can do.

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Some third-party software programs can use the SNMP monitoring protocol to talk to a router and expose its bandwidth usage, among other networking statistics. However, there’s a good chance your home router doesn’t support SNMP. SNMP applications also tend to be complex tools designed for professional network administration, not easy tools to display a bandwidth usage meter at home.

Image Credit: Todd Barnard on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 07/8/14