Does Your ISP Have a Data Cap?

Category: Networking

A reader named Ray writes, 'My ISP (Cox Communications) recently announced a monthly data usage limit of 1TB, with a surcharge of $10 for every 50 GB above the limit. I checked my data usage and found that at my present rate this will cost an extra $100 per month.' Does YOUR internet provider have a data cap? Find out now, and get some tips on reducing your data usage…

There's No Such Thing as Unlimited

Ray is retired, so he and his wife watch a lot of TV. To save money, he cancelled his cable TV subscription and went with an Internet-only approach, referred to as "cord-cutting." Folks who do this get their TV shows and movies via Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other video streaming services.

Ray told me that sometimes they have two TVs on simultaneously, streaming video in high definition (1080p). He did the math, and found that Cox's data cap would raise his monthly bill from $63 to $163 -- ouch!

First, I commend Ray and his wife for fully embracing cord-cutting. However, they’re definitely outliers in their terabyte-plus data usage. The average U.S. household was consuming 190 GB of data per month, research firm IGR reported in September, 2016. Comcast says that less than 1% of its customers use more than 1 TB per month, and the median household data consumption is around 75 GB. It’s clear that the vast majority of Americans have a long way to go before they need to worry about data caps.

ISP data caps and overage charges

Nonetheless, Cox is hardly the first ISP to impose a data cap and overage fees. Here is a list of 196 ISPs who do so. That’s out of a total of 2,500 ISPs known to the U.S. government. The caps range from a ludicrously restrictive 3 GB to a practically unachievable 3 TB per month.

Large ISPs who have data caps include AT&T, Comcast, Cox, CenturyLink, Mediacom, Suddenlink, Exede, and HughesNet. (The last two are satellite ISPs). Most of them echo Cox’s plan: 1 TB per month and $10 per 50 GB over that cap.

Ray took some smart steps to reduce his household’s data consumption. Even if your household is nowhere near its cap, it’s good to be familiar with these conservation methods, and to monitor your monthly data usage when your consumption habits change.

Video Killed the Radio Star (and maybe your data cap)

Streaming video has the biggest impact upon data usage for most households. Ray found that he could reduce the resolution of videos from 1080p to 720p without losing too much quality. Unfortunately, there is no global setting for video quality. Netflix streams in full HD (1080p) by default, and consumes up to 3 GB per viewing hour; standard definition (720p) uses about 1 GB per hour.. Netflix provides instructions for limiting video resolution to standard definition (720p) on its support site. But Amazon Video makes you select HD or standard definition each time you choose a video to watch. Other streaming channels (Hulu, Youtube, etc.) will have other conservation options.

If you use Netflix in full HD mode, you'd have to watch 11 hours a day, every day of the month, to consume a terabyte of streaming video. But in a household with multiple people using multiple screens (televisions, tablets and smartphones) that threshold could be reached much more easily.

Don’t worry too much about streaming music services, such as Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, and Apple Music. They typically consume only 1 GB every 8 hours. You could leave your music on all day, and only chew through 90 GB in a month.

Another thing to cross off your data worry list is “Internet of Things” devices such as smart lighting or refrigerators. They communicate in short bursts of data whose impact on total usage is negligible. But like Ray, you may hesitate before buying a 4K TV set (or two). Watching a video in 4K definition burns up four times as much data per hour as 1080p definition.

Monitoring Your Broadband Data Usage

To monitor your home data usage, you need to monitor all traffic passing through the home’s router. Major ISPs provide a Web page that shows your month-to-date data usage. Cox, for example, has a Data Usage Meter which lets you see your current and historical data usage. Comcast Xfinity has a Usage Meter page. AT&T customers can check their Home Internet usage page.

If your ISP doesn't provide data usage stats, you can install software to get those answers. Glasswire is a consumer-friendly firewall and network monitoring app that can show you total data usage since it was launched, and even lets you drill down into individual apps to see which one(s) are using the most data. Networx is a monitoring program without the firewall and other security features of Glasswire.

Does your ISP have a data cap? Do you know how much data your household consumes? Let me know in the comments below.

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Most recent comments on "Does Your ISP Have a Data Cap?"

Posted by:

john silberman
10 Aug 2017

My COMCAST ISP has a 1TB limit as well. I assumed to get me to add cable TV service. OTA TV works fine for me. I rarely need to stream. But those without OTA availability would need to stream much more.

Posted by:

Louis Toscano
10 Aug 2017

There is no such thing as "cutting the cable." The owner of that program you want to view may block it on the services the supposedly provide live streaming of cable and network channels.

Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
10 Aug 2017

We're grandfathered into an AT&T "unlimited data" plan, and when I checked just now I could find no indication that there were any hidden limitations. Not that it matters, since it appears that our usage is typically less than 500 GB per month. That's in spite of three TV sets and watching a fair amount (but not enormous amount) of Netflix and Amazon streaming videos, plus heavy Internet usage on our computers. So I have no complaints.

Posted by:

10 Aug 2017

Great article, Bob! I cut the cord several years ago and never looked back.

Posted by:

Kathy Kearny
10 Aug 2017

The chart you cited lists 18 broadband services for our small town, which I guess is part of which led the powers that be to decide that rural America has access to the Internet. However, because our neighborhood is 5 miles away (even though part of the same zip code), we have 3 choices, all of them deplorable and not at all high-speed no matter what they say. Believe it or not, even farmers need the Internet nowadays.

Posted by:

Ralph Sharp
10 Aug 2017

I wish I could get an internet service with a 1 TB data cap. I live so far back in the woods, they pipe the sunshine in. I have Century Link which is 1.5 mbps download speed with no data cap and Hughes Satellite Internet with a 50 GB data cap and a 12 Mbps download speed. I have never had any data left over after 20 days of each month and I don't even stream movies.

Posted by:

Ralph C
10 Aug 2017

Like Ralph Sharp, I too live outside of decent internet availability. My connection is over a cell tower and I spend $100/mo. for 20 GB and $10/GB overage. No movies or videos streaming of any kind. Really expensive compared to in the city. But then, I am not IN the city!

Posted by:

10 Aug 2017

Amazed that Time warner Cable/Spectrum ISP was not mentioned. This ISP prides itself in a NO Data Cap policy.
With excellant speed and service and a member since the 1980s everyone should check them out.
My usage for the last 4 1/2 months have been 523gb.

Posted by:

Ernest WIlcox
10 Aug 2017

I have a Direct-TV / ATT-Uverse plan that includes 50 mbps down with unlimited data. Now, I have only had this plan about a month, and I do not yet know where unlimited becomes throttled, but on the data usage monitoring page, I get a report of how much data I have used out of Unlimited (the stayed data cap), so at least I should see no surprise added charges on my bill.

My 2 cents,

Posted by:

10 Aug 2017

Downloads in my rearview mirror seem to disappear much quicker at 300Mbps with Spectrum/TWC for the same price ($30) I was paying few years ago with AT&T (for their 30Mbps service).
I am not certain that 'cutting the cord' is really that 'commendable' of an act but I am proud to have dis-franchised the household from AT&T completely.

Posted by:

James Wray
11 Aug 2017

AT&T does offer unlimited data. There are two ways to get and avoid the terabyte limit. First, pay $30 a month. Second, bundle DiercTV or Uverse TV and get unlimited for free. I bundled DirecTV with my internet.

Posted by:

11 Aug 2017

No limits here yet, not saying it won't happen in the future though. Just thinking though, isn't a TB plus a lot of data usage for Ray's two TV's? We also have internet TV, with 2 sets, plus 3 iPads, 2 laptops, and 2 iPhones, but we don't use nearly that much data. Just wondering if Ray is unknowingly sharing his signal with several of his neighbors?

Posted by:

11 Aug 2017

Our excede plan not only throttles us at 10gb it blocks us until you reload the url your trying to access.

Posted by:

11 Aug 2017

Great article, we use AT&T with 1024 GB allowance and as I was reviewing the bill I noticed we only use 313 GB on average. This with me on the laptop and wife and son running Netflix, Amazon or BBC Box depending on the day.

It as they state that you incur a $10. increase after you exceed 50 GB. So far so good!

Thanks, Phil

Posted by:

11 Aug 2017

We are rural but fortunate enough to use a local ISP who charges by the speed you use not bandwidth usage, so we are able to use our Fire TV for Hulu, Netflix, etc. We used to have Dish which limited us to 20G (if I remember right) and $10G if we used more than that. Several months, I had to pay $200 or more. Thanks for the tip about reducing Netflix's resolution.

Posted by:

Johan B.
11 Aug 2017

No data cap here. Cable internet.

Posted by:

20 Aug 2017

Been with Fox internet since 99. Didn't even know I had a cap! I checked the usage meter and I run well under 100GB with about 4 hours a day at the keyboard. I also have TelCel in Mexico with 60 GB for 100 Pesos (about $6) per month.

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