By 2020, it’s estimated that the top 15 percent of Internet users will consume 1,000 Gbps of data per month. That’s a lot of data, and as Americans transform into a connected society with smart homes, constant video watching, peer-to-peer file sharing, and numerous wireless devices per person, those data needs will only increase. To rein in potential issues associated with high usage, some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) choose to limit — or cap — the amount of data each customer can use.

For those unsure about their own data usage trends, and for users hoping to find a provider with plans to match their data needs, this article will cover the basics of common usage policies.

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What Is a Data Cap?

A data cap is a set byte limit placed on an Internet plan. Data caps effectively restrict the amount of data — files, movies, emails, etc. — that can be send over a given connection in a set period of time.

Why Do Providers Cap Data?

While caps can be frustrating for high-use subscribers, ISPs claim that the ultimate goal of these caps is to provide a better Internet experience for all customers. Because ISPs can only produce so much bandwidth and capacity, excessive use from a few users can lead to slower speeds for the rest of a provider’s consumer base. As a result, many providers have taken to calling their data use policies “Fair Use” policies, emphasizing that the aim is to provide fair access for all subscribers.

What Uses Up Data?

Any online process, from surfing the web to watching movies, uses data. Time Warner Cable® estimates that video calling (like FaceTime® or Skype™) uses 2.82 MB per minute, online gaming takes 0.83 MB per minute, and listening to Internet radio takes 0.45 MB per minute — all of which can quickly add up. Activities like email or sending a photo use significantly less data, at 10 KB per email and 3 MB per photo, respectively. Watching a program on Netflix® consumes up to 3 GB per hour for HD viewing, and 1 GB per hour of data for standard definition.

   1,000 KB (Kilobytes) = 1 MG (Megabyte)

   1,000 MB (Megabytes) = 1 GB (Gigabyte)

   1,000 GB (Gigabytes)= 1 TB (Terabyte)

 

While all that data usage sounds threatening, many users stay well underneath provider caps. XFINITY® estimates that a 300 GB cap would allow customers to stream more than 100 HD movies, download 5,500 hours of music, or send over 500 million tweets. Given that the average XFINITY customer used only 40 GB of data per month in 2015, that 300 GB limit won’t end up being very restrictive for most normal Internet users.

Do All Brands Cap Data?

As Internet technology advances, some brands are raising their data ceilings or eliminating caps altogether. Here’s a more in-depth look at the data policies for several well-known ISPs.

XFINITY

XFINITY® Data Cap: 1 TB
Overage: $10 for every 50 GB overage
Details: XFINITY suspended its former 250 GB data cap plan in 2012; the company is currently testing a new data usage cap model in the southeastern United States.
How to Track Usage: XFINITY offers an Internet Usage Meter, allowing subscribers to check how much data they’ve used in a billing period. The company also sends warning emails when customers approach their monthly limits.

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Cox

Cox® Data Cap: 1-2 TB
Overage: $10 for every 50 GB overage (for customers in the Cleveland, Ohio, area only)
Details: Cox’s data usage caps fees are the same for each plan except their fiber product, Gigablast, but overage fees are so far only being tested in the Ohio, Georgia, and Florida service areas. Users in other locations will likely be contacted by the company in the event of an overage.
How to Track Usage: Cox provides users with a Data Usage Meter tool, which can be accessed under the “My Tools” subsection of the “My Account” tab.

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Mediacom

Mediacom® Data Cap: 150–2000 GB
Overage: $10 for every 50 GB overage
Details: Mediacom will charge the $10 overage fee for the whole or partial block of 50 GB usage. Note that Mediacom’s contract says they “may” charge customers that fee, so if you are charged, it would be worth it to call customer service and try and get the Mediacom data usage fee removed. Data caps are determined by speed tier and package.
How to Track Usage: Mediacom’s Usage Meter tool can give subscribers a quick look at exactly how much data they’ve used in a billing period.

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AT&T

AT&T® Data Cap: 1 TB
Overage: $10 for every 50 GB overage, unlimited plans cost an additional $30. Unlimited data is included for customers who bundle their internet service with U-verse TV or DIRECTV service.
Details: The first two times AT&T’s data usage cap is hit, the customer will be warned but not billed. After those first two billing cycles, customers will be charged.
How to Track Usage: AT&T has a whole toolbox to help users better understand their usage patterns.

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Time Warner Cable

Time Warner Cable Data Cap: None
Overage: $1 per GB overage, up to $25 on Essentials plans
Details: While most Time Warner Cable plans are free of data allotments, the company gives subscribers the option to enroll in a capped plan for a slight monthly discount on services.
How to Track Usage: TWC customers can check their data usage by navigating to the “View Usage Details” under the “My Internet” tab, which is accessible upon logging in.

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RCN

RCN Data Cap: None

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Optimum/Cablevision

Optimum/Cablevision Data Cap: None

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Frontier

Frontier Data Cap: None
Overage: No delineated charges
Details: While Frontier’s current terms of service don’t specify a data limit, the company’s network management information indicates that excessive Internet use may be subject to monitoring and overage fees in the future.
How to Track Usage: No tools provided.

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Charter Spectrum

Charter Spectrum® Data Cap: None

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CenturyLink

CenturyLink® Data Cap: 150–250 GB
Overage: No delineated charges
Details: CenturyLink’s Excessive Use Policy specifies that customers who exceed their monthly allotment will be contacted by the company and given the option to either reduce data use or upgrade to a larger plan.
How to Track Usage: No tools provided.

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Cable ONE

Cable ONE Data Cap: 50 GB–2 TB
Overage: Fees or suspension based on company’s discretion
Details: Cable ONE doesn’t have a specific policy for single infractions of its data policy, but the company’s terms of service indicate that users with three or more overage issues may be required to upgrade their data plan.
How to Track Usage: Users can access Cable ONE’s “My Bandwidth” page by logging into their personal accounts.

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Verizon

Verizon® Data Cap: Not specified
Overage: No delineated charges
Details: Verizon’s terms of service do warn against excessive use, but the company doesn’t specify what qualifies as excessive. Users who have been accused of overages report that Verizon usually just sends a warning letter requesting that excessive-use subscribers curtail their data consumption.
How to Track Usage: Verizon provides a downloadable Online Usage tool for subscribers.

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While some Internet subscribers may still experience slowing from reasons beyond data caps, knowing what allotment each provider and plan offers can help minimize any data-related service interruptions. Consumers looking for a provider with data policies that match their needs should check out which Internet companies are available in their area.

*Data cap information for each provider is current as of writing.