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Understanding Data Caps and Usage

Updated on January 15, 2017

Data Cap

A data cap is a limit your provider places on how much data you can transfer in a month.
A data cap is a limit your provider places on how much data you can transfer in a month. | Source

What Is A Data Cap?

A data cap is a limit that a cell phone or Internet provider enforces to prevent any single user overloading a network, which can be detrimental to the experience of other users. Most commonly, a data cap is likely to be found on a 3G or 4G data plan for a cell phone or mobile hotspot device from carriers such as Verizon, Straight Talk and others. This is also a common practice with satellite based Internet providers, such as HughesNet, dishNET Satellite and Exede.

As an example, my cable Internet provider has a data cap of 300 GB, meaning that I can download up to 300 GB of data, or stream enough content from Netflix, Hulu or YouTube until that limit is reached and I begin incurring overage charges. With cell phones and satellite Internet, the available data caps tend to be much lower, for example with Verizon, a single individual can pay for a plan with a 100 GB data cap, which is quite expensive at $450 a month, but more likely if on a budget they may have a cap anywhere from 2 to 24 GB per month.

Other providers may offer unlimited data, with an initial cap on how much data is transmitted at full speed, then reduced speeds beyond the initial limit. As an example, Straight Talk does this by offering unlimited data, with the first 5 GB of data running at a max speed of 5 Mbps. Once the first 5 GB of data has been used, the download speed is reduced to approximately 64 Kbps, which is slightly faster than dial-up speed and won’t allow streaming services to work, if at all, but is enough for basic web access and email.

Examples of Data Caps

Provider
Data Cap
 
Verizon
2 GB to 100 GB
 
Straight Talk
300 MB*, 5 GB, 10 GB
* Only for Straight Talk branded feature phones
HughesNet
5 GB to 50 GB*
* Available plans vary geographically, based upon availability.
Exede
5 GB to 150 GB*
* Available plans vary geographically, based upon availability.
dishNET Satellite
5 GB to 50 GB*
* Available plans vary geographically, based upon availability.

What Happens Once My Data Cap Has Been Reached?

While every cell phone or Internet provider may take a different approach with their policies in place when a data cap is exceeded, one of two things will happen. Either your download speed will be severely reduced until the start of your next bill cycle, with in some cases the option to purchase additional data, or your provider will automatically charge you a flat-rate for additional data usage in either the number of megabytes (1000 of these equal a gigabyte) or gigabytes you have exceeded your data cap by.

As another example, my current Internet provider charges me $10 per additional 10 GB that I exceed my 300 GB data cap. However my cell phone provider, Straight Talk severely reduces my data speed until either the next billing cycle or if I purchase an additional airtime card. However, as every provider will likely have a different policy in this type of situation, it is best to contact your cellular or Internet provider and inquire what happens when your data cap is exhausted or exceeded.

How Much Data Does Netflix/YouTube/Hulu Consume?

1 Hour of...
Data Consumed
Netflix or YouTube (SD)
0.7 GB
Netflix or YouTube (HD)
3 GB
Netflix or YouTube (Ultra HD)
7 GB
Hulu
0.65 GB
Note that these are not exact figures, and the actual amount of data consumed for any given movie or episode is going to be inconsistent, even across the same show. The information presented is based in part on Netflix's own estimates of data usage a

What Uses Up Data?

The answer to this question is simple...anything. Just like anything that requires electricity to operate in your home, anything that requires data will consume your data cap. On a side note, some cell phone providers offer what is known as “zero rating” of the data consumption for some activities, such as T-Mobile’s binge-on service, however for the scope of the present topic, I will not be discussing that here.

Sending and receiving emails, pictures, downloading music, browsing the web, watching videos, streaming Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Tune-In, online gaming, system and app updates...these all require data to work and consume it in the process. The question is, how much?

While activities like email, uploading and downloading documents and photos and music are essentially a drop in the bucket every time you do them, they can add up, just like a steady drip from a faucet adding up to several gallons per day. Most users likely won’t need to be concerned about these activities being their largest source of data consumption, but bear in mind that emails with attachments will consume more data, and downloading large amounts of photos or music files can add up.

Streaming music is also something that can be a very small portion of your usage, or could be rather large, depending on how long you do so. For example, Pandora, with a free account, streams music at a rate of 64kbps, which translates to almost 29 MB total over the course of an hour. Remember that dripping faucet analogy? Based on this, to use 1 GB of data, we would need to only stream about 34 and a half hours worth of music from Pandora, which over the course of a month, is entirely possible depending on your usage habits. Lastly, when it comes to paid streaming services, typically the music is streamed at a higher quality, which uses additional data.

The elephant in the room when it comes to data usage, is anything video related. Netflix isn’t the only culprit here. YouTube, Hulu, even Facebook videos can all consume a considerable amount of data, depending on streaming quality, and how many movies and videos you watch in a month, as well as how long said videos are. If watching Netflix on a computer or other device at home connected to your TV, in SD mode, 1 hour equates to approximately 0.7 GB of usage. In HD quality, this grows, using approximately 3 GB per hour. Even worse, in Ultra HD mode, for available content in that quality, usage is even higher at approximately 7 GB per hour. Streaming on YouTube will vary based on the quality as well, but the above estimations for Netflix are a good rule of thumb for watching YouTube videos.

Lastly, operating system and app updates can consume additional data as well, but tend not to be as much as streaming video services will consume. However, they are something to keep in mind as there are a few simple changes that can be made to the settings for your device to minimize data consumed by these activities.

Monitor Data Usage in Windows 10

All versions of Windows 10 allow you to see how much data has been used by individual apps, including Windows updates.
All versions of Windows 10 allow you to see how much data has been used by individual apps, including Windows updates. | Source

Monitor Data Usage on Android Devices

Android phones and devices allow you to view how much data has been consumed over either 3G/4G connections, as well as WiFi, handy if you are on a limited data plan at home, such as satellite based Internet.
Android phones and devices allow you to view how much data has been consumed over either 3G/4G connections, as well as WiFi, handy if you are on a limited data plan at home, such as satellite based Internet. | Source
Windows 10 keeps track of how much data has been used in the past 30 days, or since you last connected to a your wireless router, or connected via Ethernet.
Windows 10 keeps track of how much data has been used in the past 30 days, or since you last connected to a your wireless router, or connected via Ethernet. | Source

How Do I Monitor My Data Usage?

Now that you know a little more about data usage, it should be easier to monitor and understand how your online activities affect your data cap. The next step is to monitor your usage.

Most providers will offer some feature similar to the image on the right when signed into your online account. Typically they will display a meter or other visual indication showing how much data you have used, and how much is remaining in your data cap for the current usage or billing cycle.

If your provider doesn’t have this information readily available online, you will have to do your own measuring. Most devices will be able to show you individually how much data has been consumed and provide a breakdown of some sort on what specifically used it. This information is often available built-in somewhere in the system or network settings. Windows 10 PCs provide an easy way to track and monitor how much data has been used and by what specifically during the prior 30 days. Android phones also have this ability, both for data usage while connected to WiFi, as well as usage when on 3G or 4G connections. iPhones will be able to tell you how much data has been consumed on your cellular plan as well.

Reducing Data Consumption

Finally, you will likely want to find ways to reduce or minimize your data consumption to either avoid hitting your data cap, or to at least make your data cap last as long as possible depending on your situation and needs.

If you frequently stream videos from Netflix, Hulu or YouTube, you can drastically reduce the amount of data used, and not just by simply streaming less. By adjusting the quality settings for these services, you can reduce the amount of data used over WiFi, or 3G and 4G connections.

You can also change your settings for updates in Windows 10 to reduce data usage as well if you are on a limited internet plan at home. The same can be done for apps on Android and iPhones as well to help reduce consumption of your cellular data plan or also to reduce consumption on a limited data plan at home.

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