Those of us living without unlimited data plans for our phones have learned to keep an eye on our smartphone internet use every month. In comparison, it feels like our home internet pipelines give us an endless flood of data to use. But that’s not always the case.
Most internet service providers (ISPs) have data caps on their home internet services. If you haven’t noticed this, it’s probably because you haven’t bumped up against it yet. With more and more streaming services arriving (I’m looking at you, Google Stadia and Apple TV+!), we’re using up more data at home than ever before.
Downloads. Games. YouTube. Video uploads. Netflix. Hulu. Spotify. We love the convenience and fun of streaming services, but we don’t want to end up paying extra fees because we love them too much. Let’s look at what data caps mean and how to avoid going over them.
Find your home internet data cap
Before we start worrying about exceeding our data caps, it’s helpful to know just what that cap is. According to ISP database BroadbandNow, 204 service providers in the U.S. have data caps. That list includes big names like AT&T Internet and CenturyLink.
Data caps not only vary from ISP to ISP, but may be very different depending on the plan you have with your provider. To find out your data cap, check with your ISP.
For example, Comcast users on the Terabyte Data Internet Usage Plan get 1 TB (1,024 GB) of internet data usage per month with their Xfinity service. If you go over that amount, you get an additional $10 fee for each additional block of 50 GB of data, up to $200. Comcast offers customers two courtesy months, but the third time over could cost you big bucks. The company notifies users when they go over so it won’t be a surprise. This is pretty typical of how ISPs handle data caps.
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Check your monthly home internet data usage
The way you check your data usage can vary with your ISP, but start by logging into your account online and looking for a usage meter. This may be very straightforward, or you may have to jump through some hoops.
I have CenturyLink, which has a 1 TB cap for my plan, but finding my monthly usage information turned out to be a challenge. I ended up chatting with tech support, but the rep was unable to unearth my recent usage information. CenturyLink doesn’t charge an overage fee, but the company says it will notify customers of excessive data use. Since I haven’t received a notice, I’m not fretting it. But I’m still thinking about the big picture and ways to make sure I stay under the cap.
Reduce your home internet data use
If you’re pushing up against your monthly data cap, first look to the usual suspects. Streaming video, especially if you’re streaming in data-heavy 4K, is often a culprit. Netflix says HD video takes up about 3 GB per hour hour per device, while Ultra HD eats up about 7 GB. That means backing down your streaming video quality level from Ultra HD to HD can save quite a bit of data. Netflix users can control this by adjust the Playback Settings in their accounts.
When renting, buying or streaming movies or TV shows from a source like Amazon Prime Video, you may see the option to choose video quality, such as SD, HD or 4K UHD. Choosing the HD or even the SD option will save data. Turning off auto-play can also help keep your streaming video data use in check. That way videos won’t accidentally keep playing while you’re off running errands all day.
Other data-hungry culprits might include online cloud backups, streaming or downloading games, or just simply having a lot of people using the same internet pipeline in the same household. The way you handle these might require a lifestyle change, like cutting down on video streaming, or you may want to plan your big downloads (like a cool new game) for those times when you have enough data left at the end of the month.
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How to deal with your heavy internet use
You know your data cap, but you still need more data than you’re allowed. You could shop around for a different provider with a more generous data cap, but a lot of people have very few ISP options to choose from.
Often the easy solution is to look into upgrading to a plan with more data from your existing ISP. Again using Comcast as an example, Terabyte Plan users can move up to an Unlimited Data Option for a flat added fee of $50 per month. That’s much better than getting socked with an extra $200 if you’re blasting past the original data cap on a regular basis.
Most home internet users aren’t in danger of going over their caps, but it pays to be aware of your data usage and how your uploading and downloading habits feed into it. If you do get a notice, you’ll know what to do.