Your Guide to Internet Data Caps

graphic for data caps and loading screen

HighSpeedOptions prides itself on providing honest, quality content. While we may be compensated when you make a purchase through links on our site, all opinions are our own. Here's how we make money.

There’s nothing worse than looking at a bill that’s higher than you expected. With internet service, hidden fees and extra costs are all too familiar, but they don’t have to catch you by surprise.

It’s not uncommon for internet service providers to have data caps on their home internet service. Yet, going over those limits could cost you big, depending on which provider you have. 

Be in the know about who has data caps, who doesn’t, and what you need to do in order to avoid this unwanted fee.

What is a Data Cap?

A data cap is a monthly limit your internet service provider places on the data you can transfer with your connection, but not all providers have one. Your internet plan might include unlimited data, in which case, our feelings won’t be hurt if you exit from this article now.

Data caps are usually coupled with an overage fee, which is an extra charge your provider can add to your bill if you exceed your limit. Alternately, you may experience internet throttling if your provider doesn’t charge overage fees but does have data limits. 

What is Speed Throttling?

Throttling is when your provider intentionally slows down your internet speeds after you’ve hit your data cap. Not all providers do this, yet it’s very common as an alternative to–or in conjunction with–overage fees.

Even if you have unlimited data, internet providers may use speed throttling as a way to regulate their networks and avoid user congestion. This is especially common during peak internet traffic hours between 7:00 PM and 11:00 PM. Yup, smack dab in the middle of your regular Netflix marathon time.

If you consistently go over your data cap each month, consider upgrading to a higher data allowance or switching to a provider like Spectrum that offers unlimited plans. 

Why Providers Use Data Caps

graphic of IoT devices

The main purpose data caps serve is to help providers regulate their network traffic and avoid congestion. This ensures that all customers have equal access and internet performance across the board.

Some providers know that it’s a balancing act in the end. Most data caps amount to 1 TB/mo., which is generally enough data for the average U.S. household. So, as some customers use up more data than others, it all evens out in the end. For this reason, providers like Frontier and Verizon do not enforce data limits. 

Data Usage by Online Activity

Data usage is the measurement of how much data is required to perform any given task online. As we discussed above, some internet providers place a certain data limit per household to help curb network congestion. If you don’t have unlimited data and want to avoid pesky overage fees, start thinking in terms of how much data you use on a regular basis.

The FCC recommends a minimum of 25 Mbps for homes with more than one user, however, you may find you need a higher bandwidth as you connect more devices. Today, most starter internet packages begin at speeds up to 50 Mbps – 100 Mbps for this reason.

It’s difficult to predict how much data you will use each month, but using these estimates below can give you an idea of what speed and data allowance you need for the best online experience.

General ActivitiesData Per HourRequired Speed
Basic Web Browsing20 MB1 Mbps
Email50 MB1 Mbps
Social Media150 MB1 Mbps
Download Photos5 MB each photo3 Mbps
Upload Photos5 MB each photo25 Mbps
Telecommuting1 GB25 Mbps
Online Classes1 GB25 Mbps
*Data sourced from FCC.com on 11/15/21.
General ActivitiesBasic Web Browsing
Data Per Hour20 MB
Required Speed1 Mbps
General ActivitiesEmail
Data Per Hour50 MB
Required Speed1 Mbps
General ActivitiesSocial Media
Data Per Hour150 MB
Required Speed1 Mbps
General ActivitiesDownload Photos
Data Per Hour5 MB each photo
Required Speed3 Mbps
General ActivitiesUpload Photos
Data Per Hour5 MB each photo
Required Speed25 Mbps
General ActivitiesTelecommuting
Data Per Hour1 GB
Required Speed25 Mbps
General ActivitiesOnline Classes
Data Per Hour1 GB
Required Speed25 Mbps
*Data sourced from FCC.com on 11/15/21.
Video ActivitiesData Per HourRequired Speed
SD Video Streaming1 GB4 Mbps
HD Video Streaming3 GB8 Mbps
Ultra HD 4K Video Streaming7 GB25 Mbps
HD Video Calls350 MB2 Mbps
*Data sourced from FCC.com on 11/15/21.
Video ActivitiesSD Video Streaming
Data Per Hour1 GB
Required Speed4 Mbps
Video ActivitiesHD Video Streaming
Data Per Hour3 GB
Required Speed8 Mbps
Video ActivitiesUltra HD 4K Video Streaming
Data Per Hour7 GB
Required Speed25 Mbps
Video ActivitiesHD Video Calls
Data Per Hour350 MB
Required Speed2 Mbps
*Data sourced from FCC.com on 11/15/21.
Gaming ActivitiesData Per HourRequired Speed
Gaming – Single Player40 MB3 Mbps
Gaming – MultiPlayer60 MB4 Mbps
*Data sourced from FCC.com on 11/15/21.
Gaming ActivitiesGaming – Single Player
Data Per Hour40 MB
Required Speed3 Mbps
Gaming ActivitiesGaming – MultiPlayer
Data Per Hour60 MB
Required Speed4 Mbps
*Data sourced from FCC.com on 11/15/21.

Difference Between ‘Bits’ and ‘Bytes’

Data usage gets confusing really fast if you don’t know your measurements. Be sure to keep an eye out for which letters are capitalized because data downloads and data speeds are calculated using two different measurements – bits and bytes. 

  • Bits: Speed is measured in Megabits per second (Mbps). There are 8 bits in 1 byte, so your speed counts will always appear much bigger than your data cap if you have one. For example, if you subscribe to an internet speed of 200 Mbps, you can download 25 Megabytes (MB) of data per second.

  • Bytes: Downloads and uploads are measured in bytes: Megabytes (MB), Gigabytes (GB), etc. Similar to the metric system, each increment is 1000x larger than the previous one. Different online activities require different byte amounts, video streaming being the largest.

If you want to track your usage to avoid overage fees, many providers offer free data usage trackers you can monitor regularly. It’s important to note that the maximum speed on your plan has no bearing on the amount of data you use. The main factor is the size of your file being downloaded or uploaded. This is what your data cap is based on – the bytes.

Providers With Data Caps

If you don’t want to worry about overage fees or speed throttling, make sure the provider you select has unlimited data plans or at least offers it as an add-on. The following providers offer internet plans with data caps of some sort:

Providers Without Data Caps

You can avoid uncertainty with your bill each month by choosing an internet plan that includes unlimited data to start. The following providers offer internet plans without data caps:

Data Caps by Provider

Most providers offer a mix of data caps and unlimited data options depending on where you live and which plan you go with. If your provider does place data caps on plans to start, be sure to ask if there is an option to purchase unlimited data for an additional monthly cost.

ProviderData Cap*Unlimited Data AvailableOverage Fees*
AT&T150 GB – 1 TB/mo.Add-on for $30/mo.$10 per 50 GB over
Cox1 TB/mo.Add-on for $50/mo.$10 per 50 GB over
Mediacom150 GB – 6 TB/mo.No$10 per 50 GB over
Suddenlink100 GB – 200 GB/mo.Select Plans$15 per 50 GB over
Xfinity1.2 TB/mo.Select Plans$10 per 50 GB over
*Prices, availability, and data limits vary by location and are subject to change. Additional fees and terms may apply. Information sourced 11/15/21.
ProviderAT&T
Data Cap*150 GB – 1 TB/mo.
Unlimited Data AvailableAdd-on for $30/mo.
Overage Fees*$10 per 50 GB over
ProviderCox
Data Cap*1 TB/mo.
Unlimited Data AvailableAdd-on for $50/mo.
Overage Fees*$10 per 50 GB over
ProviderMediacom
Data Cap*150 GB – 6 TB/mo.
Unlimited Data AvailableNo
Overage Fees*$10 per 50 GB over
ProviderSuddenlink
Data Cap*100 GB – 200 GB/mo.
Unlimited Data AvailableSelect Plans
Overage Fees*$15 per 50 GB over
ProviderXfinity
Data Cap*1.2 TB/mo.
Unlimited Data AvailableSelect Plans
Overage Fees*$10 per 50 GB over
*Prices, availability, and data limits vary by location and are subject to change. Additional fees and terms may apply. Information sourced 11/15/21.

To Cap or Go Unlimited

In most cases, data caps don’t affect users’ online experience. As you saw in our data usage section above, 1 TB/mo. of data is usually more than enough for normal activity. However, households with remote workers, online gamers, or video streamers may want to explore unlimited options.

If you’re still unsure whether to cap or go unlimited, call one of our internet experts to help walk you through options near you. 

Enter your zip code to see providers near you

search
Paula Novo
Written By
Paula Novo
Written By
Paula Novo
With over four years of telecom experience, Paula Novo is the Site Editor for HighSpeedOptions. She has helped develop the criteria by which HighSpeedOptions reviews and recommends internet service providers. Paula also leads HighSpeedOptions' coverage of the digital divide, broadband policy, and ISP reviews.