Tech Insight : How To Check Your Web Usage

6th September 2023

In this insight, we look at the many ways to check how much bandwidth you’re using, thereby helping to avoid exceeding data caps, and providing other benefits.

Why Monitor Bandwidth? 

As we move deeper into the digital age, internet usage is skyrocketing, and with it, the necessity to manage bandwidth. For businesses, this is even more critical given the increasing reliance on cloud computing, data analytics, and online communications. One particularly good reason to monitor your business bandwidth, therefore, is to save costs by avoiding any ‘overage fees,’ especially if you’re dealing with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that have data caps.

What Caps? 

Data caps, for example, can range from a generous 1-1.25TB to as low as 250GB for smaller providers. Exceeding them can result in higher fees or, worse, throttled internet speeds that can have a very negative effect on business operations.

More Than Just A Cost Consideration 

Monitoring bandwidth, however, may bring more benefits than just cost management. For example, a sudden surge in data consumption might indicate unauthorised usage, perhaps even a cyber-attack. Therefore, having a clear understanding of your bandwidth usage can be an invaluable tool in maintaining both the efficiency and security of your business.

Ways To Monitor Bandwidth

There are many different ways to monitor bandwidth. Some of the main ways include:

Using ISP Dashboards

This is the quickest and most straightforward way to check bandwidth usage, i.e. by logging-in to your ISP’s dashboard. Some ISPs, for example may provide a breakdown of upload and download usage, while others may only highlight the total usage. It’s worth remembering, however, that both upload and download data count toward a bandwidth cap. Although a quick method, checking the ISP dashboard to find web usage figures may have its limitations, e.g. the dashboard might not update in real-time, and it may only offer a broad overview without insights into individual device usage.

Router-Level Monitoring of Data Usage

Modern routers can now provide advanced features, including built-in bandwidth monitoring. Whether using popular mesh routers, e.g. Nest Wi-Fi or Eero, or traditional ones such as ASUS, you can see real-time data consumption right down to the device level through the control panel or associated mobile apps. This more detailed information can be very valuable for diagnosing “bandwidth vampires” i.e., devices that continue to sap data when they’re not actually in use.

Monitoring Via Hardware Firewalls

Those looking for a higher level of network management and security may consider making use of a dedicated hardware firewall. This method involves setting up a separate physical device between the modem and internal network with the benefit of getting robust monitoring capabilities, including traffic inspection and advanced security features. For users willing to roll up their sleeves, open-source projects like pfSense or OPNsense can turn an old computer into a powerful firewall and bandwidth monitor.

Network Management Software 

Companies like SolarWinds, ManageEngine, and PRTG offer robust network monitoring solutions that provide a detailed overview of bandwidth usage. These platforms generally provide real-time insights and alerts and can even offer predictive analytics to forecast future usage patterns. Ideal for businesses with complex networks, these software solutions usually require some technical expertise to set up and manage effectively.

Cloud-Based Monitoring Tools 

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) options like Cisco Meraki offer cloud-based network monitoring. They can be particularly useful for businesses with multiple locations or remote work environments because all the data can be monitored and managed from a centralised cloud dashboard. These services often come with monthly or annual subscriptions.

SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) 

SNMP is a standard protocol used to collect and organise information about devices on an IP network, including bandwidth usage. It’s especially useful for large-scale or enterprises.

Packet Sniffing Tools

Packet sniffers / packet analysers (e.g. Wireshark) capture the data packets that are sent to and from a network and while primarily used for debugging network issues or monitoring for security breaches, they can also be used to analyse bandwidth consumption. These tools are generally not for the faint-hearted and are best suited for those who have a deep understanding of network protocols.

Mobile Data Monitoring Apps

While more relevant for individual users or remote workers, mobile data monitoring apps like My Data Manager or Data Usage can track how much data is being consumed on smartphones and tablets. These are useful in BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) environments where employees might use personal devices for work purposes.

Built-in Operating System Tools

Both Windows and macOS offer built-in tools to check data usage, albeit not in real-time. For example, Windows has a “Data Usage” overview available in its Settings, and macOS has a “Network” tab under “Activity Monitor.” These are fairly basic and offer limited details, but they’re relatively straightforward and easy to use for quick checks.

VPN with Bandwidth Monitoring

Some advanced Virtual Private Network (VPN) services offer built-in bandwidth monitoring features. This is particularly useful for businesses that rely on VPNs for secure data transmission.

Proxy Servers

These act as an intermediary between the user’s computer and the Internet, thereby allowing the monitoring, filtering, and control of web-based traffic. Proxy servers can provide detailed logs of internet activity, which can be analysed for bandwidth usage.

Challenges and Considerations 

It should be remembered however, that there are some challenges and disadvantages of using some of methods of bandwidth monitoring. For example:

– Limited Insights from ISP dashboards. As previously mentioned, while an ISP dashboard may be a good starting point, this method can lack the ‘granularity’ of device-level statistics, e.g. it can be a bit like knowing you’ve consumed water without knowing if it’s because of a leak or because you watered the garden.

– Update Frequency and time frames in router monitoring. Not all routers update in real-time, and some routers may not allow users to set specific time frames that align with billing cycles (which can be inconvenient), as not all routers have this flexibility.

– The costs and complexity of advanced solutions. Hardware firewalls and sophisticated router setups may offer better monitoring capabilities, but they come at a financial cost and can require a higher level of technical expertise that not everyone has. Also, using SNMP for bandwidth monitoring can be complex and usually requires specialised software to interpret the SNMP data and present it in a user-friendly format. Similarly, using packet sniffing tools to monitor bandwidth is complex, not for the faint-hearted and, so could be best suited to those who with a good understanding of network protocols.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Monitoring bandwidth, therefore, isn’t all just about dodging extra fees, but it can also help with business sustainability and security. For example, knowing where your data is going and how much you are using can provide valuable insights into optimising business operations. Also, with today’s digital society and modern internet usage surging, bandwidth monitoring is becoming almost as fundamental to businesses as budgeting or quality control.

As shown above, there are many different ways to monitor web usage (bandwidth), with some providing much greater detail than others, but some being much more complex, costly, and requiring much more in-house expertise and tech know-how. The key for businesses, therefore, is to choose a monitoring strategy that aligns with business needs, operational capacity, and budget.