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What Are Data Caps?

Date Published:  January 26th, 2021Date Updated:  September 21, 2022

Summary: What are internet data caps all about? They limit everything you do online from streaming to learning. EarthLink takes a look including why you want a home internet service provider with no data caps.


From work to school to entertainment to keeping connected to family, the internet helps us do it all. What was once a fun luxury now feels like an absolutely essential part of life. In fact, according to a Pew Research study, 53% of Americans say the internet has been essential to them in 2020 — with 34% more describing internet access as important to them.

Then why do some internet service providers (ISPs) try to limit how much you can use your home internet service by tacking on data caps? You may hear it’s to help keep access and pricing stable across ISPs, but how we all use the internet varies. So, while charging heavy users has become a common practice, it’s now become pretty unappealing for many consumers who’ve seen their usage increase significantly this year.

Let’s take a look at how data limits work, and why you want a fiber internet provider without data caps.

What Are Data Caps on Internet Use?

A cap is a restriction on how much data can be sent over your home internet. It’s not how much time you’re spending on the internet, but rather how much information you’re sending or receiving. That includes sharing photos, streaming video, playing games, emails, video calls, using your smart TV, the devices on your WiFi, and more — whenever you’re online. If you hit that cap in a month, your ISP can limit your access until the next billing period or charge fees to access more data.

Most providers give you an allowance on how much data you can use each month. But what happens when you overspend that allowance? You might get hit with a huge overage fee — up to $100 per month — for using your internet your way or watch as your internet slows down for the rest of the month.

Why Are There Data Caps on Home Internet?

Adding data caps or throttling down your internet speed are ways that some ISPs control your internet use and discourage usage levels that they decide are too much. 

The internet is powered by data. We know because, as internet pioneers, we were there when the Information Superhighway was building its on-ramp. It quickly became — and still is — where we turn to learn more and get answers. So, why would an ISP want to limit your access to it?

What Is the Average Data Usage for Home Internet?

Watching a TV show or a movie on your favorite streaming service uses roughly one GB of data per hour for standard definition (SD) video and up to three GB per hour for high definition (HD)  video. By the way, whether you’re downloading or streaming, you’ll use about the same amount of data to access that show or film. So, if you are binging that cool new series in HD, you could be looking at 30 gigs of data for roughly a season. And that doesn’t include data for video conferencing for work, sending grandma the latest photos, or having virtual classrooms for school.

Let’s face it: we’re using more data than ever. In fact, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average household’s internet data usage had jumped 38 times in ten years to 344 GB in 2020 according to DecisionData. By the third quarter of 2020, the average data consumed was up to 383.8 GB — an increase of nearly 40% from last year. 

A cap is a restriction on how much data can be sent over your home internet.

In the first few weeks of March 2020, there was an 18% increase in in-home data usage compared with the same time in 2019, according to Statista. They also found that 29.7% of U.S. social media users were on the platforms an additional one or two hours per day in the same timeframe. In March 2020, the in-home data usage of smartphones rose by 34%. 

A Horowitz Research COVID-19 study found that 61% of U.S. households had added new users who were working or studying at home this year — including 60% of households in May 2020 alone.

We’re using home internet more and to do more things. 

What’s Using up All of My Home Internet Data?

Frequent use can burn through your monthly data allowance quickly, but how do you know what your family is spending that data on? Here are a few of the most common things that use a lot of data:

  • Video conferencing or video calls
  • Streaming services for TV and movies — HD video uses triple the data of SD
  • Gaming
  • Some software or device updates
  • Transferring large files like photos to cloud-based storage

When you add up the usage for everyone and their devices connected to your service, you’ll get a better idea of how much internet you need.

How to Keep Track of Your Internet Data Usage

If you have data caps with your current internet service provider, look at your account or contact their customer support team to find out where to find this information on their site. It will let you see how they’re monitoring your internet usage as well as how close you’re getting to going over your data limit on a regular basis.

How Much Internet Data Do I Need?

That’s an important question to ask as you consider high-speed internet service providers in your area. Start by considering how much data you are currently using each month. Are you frequently going over your limit? Do you plan to grow your usage or will it change in the coming months?

We hope this article has helped you gain a deeper understanding of what data caps are, how they impact your internet use, and why you should avoid them for your home internet service provider.

Just so you know, EarthLink doesn’t have data caps on our fiber internet. We think making the right connection with your ISP is essential, and you should be able to use the internet how you want. Find out more about EarthLink’s internet.


Seven awesome things you can do with no data caps i- infographic.

Erin Ellison

Erin Ellison

Erin Ellison is the Director of Content Marketing for EarthLink. Her superpower is translating complicated tech jargon and concepts into language we can all understand. Erin has more than 15 years of writing experience for businesses, agencies, and the media. She currently lives and works in Atlanta.

See all posts from Erin Ellison.