Semantically speaking

The broadband bandwidth blues

Semantically speaking

Two things happened during the last month, while I was testing a raft of small business VoIP solutions for a client. First, I made a lot of cheap or even free telephone calls, which is in itself unusual, as I’m something of a phonophobe. Second, I came across an Advertising Standards Agency ruling that upheld a complaint against an advert for the BT Communicator VoIP product that went out to users of BT Broadband.

Essentially, the ad claimed that customers could make free UK calls, but one person didn’t agree once he discovered that the service used up most of his monthly 1GB usage allowance on his basic broadband package (break through your bandwidth cap and you get charged for the additional usage). So while technically speaking you could say that the phone calls were free, all your other Internet usage wouldn’t be. This was of interest more because it brought the subject of broadband caps into the foreground again. I’m sure I don’t need to preach too loudly about this to the majority of readers, who will, at the consumer level at least, be only too aware of their bandwidth limits.

It doesn’t bother me because I choose my ISPs with an open mind as to the value proposition, so uncapped bandwidth plus faultless support and stability are my principal criteria (I’m with Zen, not cheap but the value proposition is hard to beat). After much searching, it seems that there are only two contenders at the consumer level when it comes to bandwidth-monitoring software: NetMeter and NetLimiter.

NetMeter is free, but its author hasn’t been able to devote any time to it lately and the last update was a year ago. What’s more, there’s precious little support or documentation to help you – not that you’ll need it. Load it up, right-click the graphing window and you can set basic parameters such as type of graphing, unit of measurement and set up an alert whenever a traffic limit is hit. The same right-click menu gives you access to a highly detailed set of reports that will show your daily, weekly, monthly and annual upstream and downstream traffic volumes, along with peaks and lows, averages and even a projected total for the day/week/month based upon your historical data. Like all the tools at this level, these reports also take into account traffic between machines on your network, although for the average home user this won’t add much overhead anyway, and it just means you have a little additional leeway before the cap is cracked.

NetLimiter is in a different league, but then it isn’t free (£20 inc VAT) and it tackles the issue from a different perspective. Instead of just measuring traffic, NetLimiter (as the name would suggest) allows you to set upload and download traffic limits at application level. In essence, it’s a basic bandwidth shaper, and as such it works well. I didn’t bother with the provided firewall, and as this can be toggled off during installation that was no big deal (I prefer to leave security issues to those people who dedicate themselves to security and privacy issues, rather than use a bolt-on to a bandwidth- shaping app).

Anyhow, the interface of version 2 Beta, which runs perfectly stable, is very slick and professional compared to NetMeter, as you can see from the screenshots. It doesn’t monitor traffic such as file and printer sharing on your local network unless these use NetBIOS over TCP/IP protocol, but it does keep detailed stats on your bandwidth. These reports are far more detailed than NetMeter’s, because you can see daily/weekly/monthly usage by application as well as overall. However, there’s no alerting function for when you reach a limit, which is problematical if you’re trying to monitor a broadband cap.

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