Dr. Alex Hills

Dr. Alex Hills

Right now you may be scrambling to adapt to our new COVID-19-based environment, including getting yourself properly connected to the Internet. But after the dust settles, you might want to go back and check the details of your Internet service plan to make sure that it’s right for you.

If you’ve started to work at home or if you have a child whose school has switched to online learning, you may be wondering if your Internet service -- and your cellular service -- will be up to the new challenges. If you’re spending more time at home and streaming more movies, that may also stress your Internet service. Here are a few ways you can check things out.

Speed and data limits

You probably get your home Internet service from an “Internet service provider,” sometimes called an ISP, which might also be a telephone or cable TV company. And your Internet service plan may have two kinds of limits: speed and data limits. But what do these mean?

In our digital world, voice messages, emails, videos, and other information are all converted to bits -- ones and zeros – and those bits are sent to you through the Internet. Imagine water flowing through a garden hose, carrying those bits and filling a bucket. Your Internet connection is that garden hose, and your Internet speed is how fast the water and the bits are flowing through the hose.

The bits you’ve collected in that bucket at the end of the hose are your data usage, all the bits that have flowed through the hose over a period of time -- usually a month. In other words, it’s how much data -- how many bits – you’ve used in a month.

In our new COVID-19 world, you may not have enough Internet speed to meet your needs. The bits may not be arriving fast enough to support your working at home and your child’s online learning -- in addition to streaming videos and playing online games. You may be getting frozen frames, or you may be seeing “pixelation,” which means your video has deteriorated into colored squares. You may see that irritating “loading” message, or the infamous rotating circle that tells you to wait. And what about your data usage? It may also be limited in a way that will inhibit your Internet use.

This may all sound a little murky, but there are a few simple ways you can check your Internet plan to see if it will be able to accommodate your new online work, learning and entertainment environment -- in addition to all the other ways you already use the Internet.

Check what you have now

You’ll know that you’re having speed problems if you often see those frozen video frames, pixelation, a “loading” message, or a rotating circle. That part’s pretty easy. And these same signals will tell you later if you have these problems when you and your family are fully engaged in your new online working, learning, and entertainment environment.

But it would also be a good idea to check your data limit. Some Internet service providers impose a “hard” limit, which means that they’ll put an extra charge on your bill when you exceed your monthly data limit, sometimes called your “data cap.” It’s measured in Gigabytes, abbreviated GB. Other companies simply “throttle” your service when you exceed your data limit. But that means they slow down your Internet connection -- the bits flowing through that hose -- and you may again see those ugly indicators telling you that your connection speed is too low.

But if you have a “hard” data limit, you may not know that you’ve exceeded it until the end of the month in a nasty surprise when you receive your bill. If you’ve exceeded your data limit for the month, your Internet service provider will charge you accordingly. If you have a “hard” data limit, it’s important to know what that data limit is and check your data usage to be sure you don’t exceed the limit. Or you might prefer to save yourself the trouble by switching to an “unlimited data” plan, but that’s likely to be more expensive.

To check your plan’s data limits and your data usage, you can call and ask the company, but you may also be able to do it online, using the company’s website. (Companies are now receiving lots of phone calls, and you may experience long wait times if you call them on the phone.)

And what about your cellular service? You probably use the Internet from your smartphone when it’s connected to the cellular network. When you’re doing this, your cellular company is your Internet service provider. Most cellular companies now offer at least 4G LTE service, which provides high speed connections, but many cellular plans have data caps. As with your home Internet company, it’s a good idea to know what your data limit is and how much data you use each month. Both are likely to be shown on your monthly bill.

Here’s the bottom line: With our many new uses of the Internet, this is a great time to check the details of your Internet plan to see if you need to make any changes.

Dr. Alex Hills lead the team that built the world’s first Wi-Fi network, a story he tells in his book Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio. He lives in Palmer.

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