The very fact that you're reading this means that you have access to some form of Internet connectivity. In fact, everybody and their uncle is online in this day and age of dime-a-dozen ISPs and the all pervading reach of mobile Internet. Unfortunately, providing bandwidth and requisite infrastructure and procuring necessary licences is a Herculean effort involving a phenomenal amount of investment. This means only big corporate entities can take up the expensive proposition of connecting you to the repository of collective human consciousness that we know as the Internet. Unfortunately, large corporate entities tend to squeeze every single paisa out of their customers and generally use their army of lawyers to tweak the fine print to the consumers' detriment.

The point is, if you have a niggling doubt that you are being cheated by your ISP (Internet Service Provider), chances are you most likely are. Cheated—not in the way that would constitute a criminal case, but generally being disingenuous about the terms of service and advertising to create expectations that are eventually met with disappointment. If you have ever felt that you are getting lower bandwidth than you had paid for or have unknowingly run up a massive bill, it's time to get acquainted with the terminologies and idiosyncrasies of your Internet plan to avoid common pitfalls and make the best out of it.

Searching for high-speed internet (Image credit: Getty Images)

Seeking affordable high-speed broadband (Image credit: Getty Images)

What is broadband?
In its strictest definition, broadband involves the ability to access multiple channels of data over a single telecommunications medium, using all manners of multiplexing techniques. However, as laymen we understand it as the speedy Internet connectivity delivered over cable, optical fibre, and wireless medium, as opposed to the good old days when logging on to the Internet meant listening to funny sounds emanating from the modem.

The definition of broadband in terms of industry standards encompasses certain minimum speed and connectivity prerequisites. In most of the civilised world, the minimum bandwidth (speed) is pegged at 512 kbps. In India, however, an ISP must provide at least 256 kbps to qualify as broadband. Here's the textbook definition of the term as per TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India):

“An 'always-on' data connection that is able to support interactive services including Internet access and has the capability of the minimum download speed of 256 kilo bits per second (kbps) to an individual subscriber from the Point of Presence (POP) of the service provider intending to provide Broadband service where multiple such individual Broadband connections are aggregated and the subscriber is able to access these interactive services including the Internet through this POP. The interactive services will exclude any services for which a separate license is specifically required, for example, real-time voice transmission, except to the extent that it is presently permitted under ISP license with Internet Telephony”.

Understanding Throughput and Data Usage Limits
Unless you are one of the few lucky souls with access to completely unlimited and FUP-free Internet connections, download limits are the sad reality that underscore an irony where the content is free on the Internet, but the delivery mechanisms are prohibitively expensive. Most ISPs these days offer higher speeds but lay down proportionally overzealous download limits to curb bandwidth usage.

Oh, did I say download limit? Well, I think I did. That's incorrect and, in fact, the most common mistake committed by consumers when calculating their usage limits. You see, usage is measured in terms of the maximum throughput through your Internet account. This isn't just restricted to downloads alone, but factors in uploads as well. That 25 MB presentation you sent a colleague or the 2 GB of data you backed up on your “cloud” drive—all count towards your data usage. So if you have been hitting your usage limit without downloading nearly that much, now you know why.

High-speed fibre optic connectivity is sorely lacking

High-speed fibre optic connectivity is sorely lacking (Image credit: Getty Images)

Of Bits and Bytes
Anyone with basic knowledge of computers will tell you MB (Megabytes) is not the same as Mb (Megabits), even though somebody should tell that to the smaller ISPs. While they willy-nilly announce plans that appear fast, the user has to figure out the actual speeds they are entitled to. Do not fall for cheap cons like advertisements offering a 12MBps line, because if it sounds too good to be true that probably is the case. A clear example of how this affects users is seen when comparing the actual download speeds to the ISP's advertised speeds. Do not be surprised if a 10MB file can't be downloaded in 10 seconds on your 1Mbps line. That's because 1 byte = 8 bits, and when you apply a bit of math it comes down to 80 seconds instead. So if a provider delivers a 1Mbps connection to your home, the ideal download speed should be around 128KBps or 1/8th of the broadband speed, provided you are the only user sharing that connection.

FU Policy
Fair Usage Poilcy is a lovely marketing term that—like all marketing drivel—has very little meaning for the end user. We like to call it the ISP's FU Policy. What it essentially means is that the service provider decides an arbitrary usage limit for their tariff plan and drops the speed of the connection when you hit that limit. There are however, some broadband services like the MTNL Triband that do not drop F-bombs on its users. However, we've all experienced this at some point or the other, and the particularly annoying part is there's no easy way for users to check their usage, especially when the service provider is a local last-mile provider, our beloved (and mostly thuggish) cable-wallahs. According to TRAI regulations, the service provider has to intimate the end user when 80 percent of their usage under FUP has been reached.

We checked with a couple of ISPs about how customers can check their FUP limit. You Broadband has a web interface, where users can login to check their limit. Tikona Broadband has a similar setup for those using their FUP plans, but they also have other truly unlimited plans. Airtel claims to intimate users when their limit has been reached, but Airtel users we spoke to apparently haven't received any such intimation. In any case, it should not be the prerogative of the user to check their usage, since it is the ISPs that have mandated it in the first place. The TRAI statement about the same is very clear on this. Making a user log on to a website and use more of their allowed throughput limit is not only counter-intuitive but can also be considered as a form of malpractice.

Bone of Contention
Essentially, contention ratio is the maximum number of users who may share the broadband connection with you. As per international regulations, the ideal ratio for home users is 50:1 and 20:1 for business users. TRAI has ruled that many ISPs compromise on the quality of the broadband connection by accommodating a higher number of subscribers per unit. This brings down broadband speeds drastically and congests networks. This is where contention ratio comes into play.

Bandwidth jam

Bandwidth jam (Image credit: Getty Images)

With the number of users multiplying at a faster rate than at which more bandwidth is being made available, the connection speed has suffered and the quality of the connection will also deteriorate as web servers are bound to bounce requests due to lack of bandwidth. Despite the advent of high-speed connections, the number of users has increased drastically; 117 percent in the five years from 2005 to 2010. According to figures released by TRAI, the number of broadband subscribers as of February 2012 is 13.54 million, with market leader BSNL catering to nearly 65 percent of them. A big chunk of users – nearly 5 million – are split between 154 other ISPs.

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