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What are data caps?

by | Oct 22, 2021


Many people have spent the past year relying on technology to keep them connected and entertained. In fact, many internet service providers reported huge spikes in internet usage. Average daily data usage rates exceeded 16.6 GB, which is an 18% increase from 2019 to 2020.

The cause of these data usage spikes can be attributed to millions of people transitioning to working and learning from home.

Whether you video chat for school and work, play video games, or stream movies and shows on your smart TV, these online activities can add up to big-time data usage. Some internet service providers can limit the amount of data you use per month. These are called data caps. In this guide, we do a deep-dive into how data caps work, why internet service providers use data caps and how to monitor your home internet data.

A father and daughter look at a tablet on the couch together.

Internet service provider (ISP) data caps

A data cap is a limit on the amount of data you can send and receive each month. Data caps are put in place by internet service providers (ISPs). Depending on the ISP, you may see data caps referred to as “fair use policy” or “monthly usage allowance”. Each ISP has different penalties for reaching a data cap.

Some ISPs have a soft cap, which is where a provider throttles your internet speeds. The ISP slows your speeds down to limit what you are able to do on the internet. Usually, throttle speeds do not hinder casual browsing experiences, but online activities, like streaming and gaming, may not be accessible or have high latency. Some ISPs have hard caps. With a hard cap, you can be charged for overages if you reach your data limit.

Whether you’re a standing customer for an ISP or browsing for your first internet package, review how the provider may or may not be capping data.

A woman plays an online game on her phone.

Why do ISPs have data caps?

It may be easy to assume that data caps exist just so ISPs can charge you extra money. However, there are more technical reasons why ISPs have data caps. As more and more people begin to use the internet for higher-bandwidth activities, such as streaming, ISPs need to manage the amount of data used across their networks for all customers. To prevent overloads and outages, ISPs then cap the amount of data one network can use so that other users don’t experience slow internet speeds.

A family watches a video together on a laptop as they sit on the couch.

What uses up the most data?

If you have an ISP that does implement data caps, then it may be useful to understand which online activities tend to have the biggest data usage. Below are estimates, adapted from PenTele Data, for data used per hour for various online activities.

Online activity

Data usage

Email 1 Mbps
Web browsing 3 – 5 Mbps
Social media 3 – 5 Mbps
Video calls 3 – 5 Mbps
HD streaming 5 – 10 Mbps
Online gaming 3 – 6 Mpbs
4K streaming 25 Mbps

Note: Mbps (Megabits per second) is the standard measure of internet speed and refers to how much information can be downloaded or uploaded in one second.

Keep in mind that these examples are estimates based on typical file sizes. Your usage may vary. Certain ISPs may offer tools to track data usage, either through a provider app or by settings on a router. Check your usage against the provider’s app to see which online activities are using the most data. Furthermore, see if the ISP has a data usage calculator so that you can estimate your household’s monthly usage.

Before choosing an internet service provider, consider if data caps are something you want to deal with every month. While having data caps may be a cost-savings solution, you may want to consider if speed throttling or overages are worth it for your internet needs. For more internet resources, check out the CenturyLink Blog Hub.

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