It's no surprise that tattoos and piercings have been linked to other risky decisions but capped Internet bandwidth?  

Some people don't like that Internet providers have been secretly capping broadband Internet speeds.  Marshini Chetty, a postdoctoral researcher in Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing, interviewed 12 households in South Africa, where broadband caps were universal until February 2010. The caps set by South African ISPs vary, with some plans only offering 1 GB of data per month. At the time of the study, the caps ranged up to 9 GB of data, far lower than the 150-250 GB caps set by U.S. providers.

What Chetty and her collaborators found were coping mechanisms built into South Africans' daily lives in order to manage their online activities under the caps. Some would  pay additional fees for incremental cap increases while others would visit family members to use their Internet accounts, or switch from desktop connectivity to smartphones.

Since there are few (if any) ways for customers to monitor Internet usage throughout the month, their access often would be cut off in the middle of performing an online activity.

"People's behavior does change when limits are placed on Internet access—just like we've seen happen in the smartphone market—and many complain about usage-based billing, but no one has really studied the effects it has on consumer activity," said Chetty. "We would also hear about people 'saving' bandwidth all month and then binge downloading toward the end of their billing period."

Georgia Tech postdoctoral researcher Marshini Chetty of the School of Interactive Computing says capped broadband service often forces users into risky decisions. Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology and the Ramblin' Wreck

"Mysterious processes" refers to customers' inability to determine which applications are eating up their bandwidth, ranging from being unaware that streaming video or downloading songs consumes much more data than normal web browsing, to not knowing that many background applications (such as automatic software updates) count against the monthly cap. We were surprised to learn that many of the households we studied chose not to perform regular software updates in order to manage their cap. This activity can be benign for some applications, inadvisable for others and downright dangerous in certain cases. For example, not installing security patches on your system can leave you vulnerable to viruses and other sorts of cyber attacks."

In households with multiple Internet users, it can be difficult for the heads of the household to manage overall activity when they are not fully aware of each member's Internet use. As with other consumable resources in a household, from milk to hot water, the apportionment of "fair" amounts of bandwidth reflects family practices and requires a fair bit of nuance, varying by family style and composition. 

"As ISPs move more toward usage-based pricing, we need to keep in mind the reactive behaviors that consumers adopt and the consequences of those behaviors. Because when you have broadband caps, you will use the Internet differently," Chetty said. "This study was performed in South Africa, and although the caps are higher in the United States, there are still instances where people are hitting them. So if you're going to have caps, you should empathize with your users and offer ways for customers to see how their data are being used and who is using them."

More tools are becoming available, from ISPs, within operating systems and from third parties; but this is one of the first surveys to show why there is a demand for such tools, and why they are important to users.

The paper, "'You're Capped!' Understanding the Effects of Bandwidth Caps on Broadband Use in the Home," was presented yesterday at the 2012 ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Austin, Texas.