Shaping — lowering the speed of your Internet connection once you've exceeded your monthly download limits — is an annoying but seemingly permanent feature of the Australian communications landscape. Lifehacker 101 explains the issues surrounding shaping you need to consider before choosing your Internet service provider (ISP).
Picture by Grantmac
In much of the world, home Internet connection plans are essentially unlimited — once you're connected, you can do what you like. If you download gigabytes and gigabytes, you might get contacted by your ISP, but for the most part you won't have to worry.
The Australian broadband market has never had this approach. Largely because of the costs of connecting to the overseas locations where most content can be found, virtually all residential providers impose a download limit on their broadband plans, which represents the total of data you're allowed to access each month.
On the cheapest plans, this might be as little as 200MB, which is virtually useless — operating system patches and antivirus updates alone will consume that much. At the other end of the market, some plans offer 100GB a month or more, but you'll pay handsomely for the privilege. (Whether this if fair, and whether it might get subtly changed when the National Broadband Network rolls out, is a bit beside the point: it's the market reality right now.)
Once you've exceeded that limit, your ISP has two alternatives. They can charge you for the excess data, which is typically done on a per-megabyte basis, and can be ruinously expensive (stories of consumers getting hit with massive ISP bills invariably start with this kind of issue). Or they can "shape" your connection — lowering the speed to (typically) 64Kbps, which is painful but means you can still access essential email until the start of the next calendar month.
The big advantage of shaping (from a consumer point of view) is that your Internet access costs are entirely predictable. The disadvantage is that if you do chew through your allocated limit and you rely heavily on your PC, you'll really feel the pinch. If you look on Twitter towards the end of a calendar month, you'll see lots of people whinging about having been shaped.
I'm regularly getting shaped, what can I do?
If you haven't been regularly using BitTorrent or otherwise downloading large files, there's two likely possibilities: either your ISP is hopeless at calculating its bills, or you've been infected with malware. For the former, ask your ISP for a detailed accounting — it's certainly not uncommon for miscalculations to occur. In the latter case, make sure you've got good antivirus software in place (though really bad malware infections sometimes need the whole machine to be reinstalled to clean them out).
Assuming that you have been using your full monthly allowance, there's a few possible strategies. Most providers will happily let you shift to a higher-volume plan, so if you find yourself going over month after month, it might be worth spending that extra $10 a month to ensure full speed. Some ISP (Internode springs to mind) allow you to purchase extra "data blocks" to cover periods of peak usage.
How can off-peak and unmetered content help me?
Many providers divide usage into "peak" and "off-peak" periods, reflecting the reality that outside business hours and overnight there's much less usage of their networks. Your off-peak download limit is calculated separately, meaning you can easily stay within limits if you restrict downloading to these hours. This is especially helpful with BitTorrent clients which let you specify activity period. Hours tend to vary between providers, so check carefully (especially if you're outside the Eastern states).
ISPs also often offer unmetered content: data you can download from specific sites and services without it counting towards your total. This is especially common with the ABC's iView service, which isn't metered by iiNet, Internode, Primus, Westnet and Adam. iiNet doesn't include iTunes purchases in its total, while Telstra doesn't count BigPond Movies or its own sites (including ones providing video). Many providers also have "mirrors" for popular software downloads or online gaming users which don't count towards the total.
What other issues should I look out for?
One common trap for young players is whether or not your ISP includes uploads (sending email, establishing connections with sites) as well as downloads (visiting web sites, downloading software and music) in your monthly total. Depending on how you use your connection, this can make a major difference. Counting uploads is particularly risky if you regularly use BitTorrent or other P2P software, since you'll likely be sharing a lot of data with other users.
The big offenders in this area are Telstra and Optus, who routinely count downloads and uploads with all new connections. Some providers have a mixture of approaches, so it pays to double-check.
A few ISPs (Exetel and Virgin amongst them) selectively apply shaping to P2P connections, meaning that using BitTorrent software will be much slower. Whether this bothers you may depend on how often you torrent; in practice, torrent connections are often slow for other reasons so this may not be a major issue. (For more on how to get the most from torrenting, check our top 10 BitTorrent tips and tricks.)
Got your own shaping-beating strategy? Share it in the comments.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?