Comcast recently announced that starting in October there would be a hard cap on how much bandwidth its customers could use on a month to month basis. There is currently no way of checking how much bandwidth Comcast thinks you have used.
From their FAQ:
How does Comcast help its customers track their usage so they can [sic]avoid exceeding the limit?
There are many online tools customers can download and use to measure their consumption. Customers can find such tools by simply doing a Web search – for example, a search for “bandwidth meter” will provide some options. Customers using multiple PCs should just be aware that they will need to measure and combine their total monthly usage in order to identify the data usage for their entire account.
In other words, Comcast doesn’t help its customers at all. Check out Comcast’s FAQ regarding Excessive Use to answer any further questions you might have.
I decided to look around for a good bandwidth meter or monitoring solution to see what I might find. This list is of course not comprehensive, but I hope I’ve highlighted a lot of the popular tools and best options.
Client Side – Client side solutions are going to be programs that you install on each computer connecting to your router/cable modem. There are a few problems to this:
- You have to install the software on each machine and sum the totals.
- Each machine now has an additional process running.
- You won’t accurately account for your traffic if additional or unknown machines are on your network (ex. wireless network security hole).
- The programs will take into account intranetwork traffic (between two machines connected to your router) which Comcast will not.
Regardless of the problems, client-side solutions are the most practical and easiest to use (particularly if you only have one computer connected to the internet). Here are a few options with some notes to each application.
DU Meter – Seemed to be the most frequently recommended in online forums. Offers a 30 day trialnot free: costs $19.99. It has good options, and is able to hide in the menu bar area to be always visible but never in the way.
PRTG Network Monitor v7 – Free for personal use, but convoluted interface, monitors your router from a client (meaning that computer always has to be on). Network Monitor left a Program Files directory after being uninstalled.
PRTG Traffic Grapher V6 – Free for personal use, but convoluted interface. It’s a little simpler than the Network Monitor by the same company. It monitors your router from a client (meaning that the computer with this installed always has to be on). Traffic Grapher left at least 3 services still running after being uninstalled and the full application in Program Files, so it uninstalled the… shortcuts?
Firefox extension Bandwidth Meter and Diagnostics 1.1 – This add-on doesn’t record traffic like the rest of these mentioned applications, but it does all you to capture your upload and download speeds and help diagnose connection problems with sites. This is mentioned mostly to clarify the use of the application despite the similar name to all these other applications.
RAS Graph and Stats (RAS G&S) – Stand-alone executable with no install, just put a shortcut to the executable in the startup folder in your Start Menu (creates other folders and settings you wouldn’t want in the startup folder). RAS G&S is pretty basic, it is exactly like Bandwidth Monitor and Meter but free. It annoyingly starts up the graph at every startup so you manually have to minimize it to the system tray and it doesn’t fit in the title bar.
NetMeter – Closest comparison to DU Meter, but it’s free. Has a lot of cool options, like ‘click-through’ and transparency. Offers all the other essentials like choosing which network interface to monitor and calculating totals per day, per week, and per month. It also offers a predicted amount based on your usage to guess how much bandwidth you will use
NetLimiter – NetLimiter has 3 different versions: a freeware monitoring tool and then a lite and a pro version for shaping your internet traffic. The non-freeware versions have a 28 day trial so you can check out if they’re worth it to you. The great thing about NetLimiter is that it is able to differentiate between network traffic and internet traffic, meaning your file transfers to another machine on your router doesn’t count in your internet traffic, giving a much more accurate estimate. NetLimiter takes care of all the basics, but also allows gathers statistics not only on your computers traffic but also records stats per application that’s accessing the network, a very useful stat if you’re trying to identify a heavy hitter like a video game or music service.
For Mac Users – I found this Mac software, SurplusMeter, in my searching and figured I’d add it to the list in hopes that it might help any Apple users. It’s a client-side solution, but where as all of the above client solutions are Windows-based I wanted to bring this to light. It looks to cover all the bases and it’s freeware. Click on the name to learn more and download the app.
Router Side – A router-side solution would be optimal as it would capture all inbound and outbound network traffic, the same as what Comcast is going to see, specifically monitoring the WAN port traffic. Router-side solutions would allow you to total the traffic for all computers connecting to your network: hard-wired and wireless, including anybody that might be an unwelcome guest (neighbors or others piggy-backing on your unsecured wireless). This cap is another reason to be sure your Wireless network is secured or else others might be inflating your traffic.
DD-WRT firmware – The DD-WRT firmware can be combined with a program called rFlow to collect and log the information. This unfortunately means one of the problems of the client-side solutions transfers over: you’ll have to have that computer on all the time that you want to record the traffic. DD-WRT is installed on a router that you’d buy from the store (check the compatibility list) for free, much like you’d upgrade the factory installed firmware.
DD-WRT allows a lot more flexibility, configuration, and functionality out of your router just by making it available to you in the firmware. The interface will change when you go to (default) 192.168.1.1, allowing you greater security and more features.
Tomato firmware – Tomato firmware looks like an even greater improvement over DD-WRT. Unfortunately, it’s also more exclusive in the routers it is compatible with. I really wanted to try this firmware out but my routers and those on the shelf at Best Buy were incompatible. The screenshot (from their website at polarcloud.com) tells a lot about the bandwidth monitoring in that you can watch just WAN traffic (ideal for this situation) with real-time, daily, and monthly reports. If you’re a lucky owner of a compatible router, this seems worth looking into. The one problem I’ve read about is that with a power outage or powering down the router, you’ll lose all your data about the traffic. There might be something like rFlow to help fix that problem though.
WallWatcher – WallWatcher is very similar to rFlow in that it gathers SNMP data from your router to track the traffic. This allows it to be a little more compatible with more routers as they just have to support SNMP traffic to report their status. You’ll need the computer with WallWatcher installed to be on all the times that you want traffic monitored. Unfortunately my router doesn’t utilize SNMP so I wasn’t able to test this out.
It certainly seems, given the length of this list, that Comcast was overstating the simplicity of finding a good bandwidth meter. If you add in a few qualifiers like ‘free,’ the difficulty of finding one increases even further. I hope this post was able to provide you a few links with places to check for solutions. If with a router-side solution or your router natively tracks the bandwidth and you think your traffic is higher than it should be you can investigate further with the previously mentioned WireShark.
If you’re not able to implement a router-side solution like the Tomato or DD-WRT firmwares, I hands-down recommend NetLimiter with NetMeter coming in second. NetMeter offers a “prettier,” more customizeable interface while still maintaining a small footprint nor getting in the way and a simple way of getting reports. Some screenshots of NetMeter in action:
NetLimiter doesn’t have the options for an always on top window, but it’s the only application (client-side) I’ve found that can differentiate between Internet and local traffic. It keeps the statistics organized and allows you to monitor network speed (incoming/outgoing) per process on the local network and WAN/internet bound traffic.
You might walk away from this with a list of what you should look for in the next router you buy: SNMP support (for communicating with the router), compatible with TomatoDD-WRT firmware, or has its own built in bandwidth monitoring.
If you know of any other worthwhile internet traffic meters, drop them off in the comments. For now, I’ll recommend (the free) NetLimiter Monitor.