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Internet Bandwidth Conservation: Tips on Staying Below Your Monthly Data Cap

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Since mid-2020, many of you have sent me questions asking about how to conserve Internet bandwidth—that is, how to not go over a monthly data cap. Apparently, even after the pandemic, working from home and the new streaming habit causes more problems than revealing the real couch potatoes we've all been trying to hide inside.

This post will address what you can do to minimize your Internet use and avoid the ridiculous fees when your monthly data allowance runs out. Even if you have an unlimited data plan, these are helpful tips anyway.

Best gaming routers: Asus GT-BE98 Pro Wi-Fi 7 Gaming Router
Internet bandwidth conservation: Your router is not to blame when it comes to data caps, but it can help.

Why you should care about Internet bandwidth

First and foremost, it's a matter of your money.

If your Internet service provider (ISP) allows you to transfer only a specific amount of data between your home and the outside world per month, called a data cap or allowance, going over that will incur extra fees.

You might be more familiar with cellular data caps—it's a way for your phone carrier to make extra dough from heavy users. The same idea applies to certain broadband services.

Then, it's also about resource conservation. Each time you send and receive data, you cause the device in question, your router, and many other pieces of equipment at various locations around the world to consume electricity.

But let's just pretend we only care about our cash.

Data caps of and the change in our lifestyles

Not all ISPs impose data caps on their customers. The table below includes a rough list of ISPs that have this greedy practice. Clearly, you should avoid all of them, but many of us don't have a choice. In this case, it's a good idea to avoid those $10 or $15 extra charges for each additional 50 gigabytes (GB) block—they can add up fast.

ProviderService TypeMonthly 
allowance
Fees per 
50GB extra
AT&TDSL, Fiber150GB/month (DSL).
350GB/month (fixed wireless).
1.5TB/month (Fiber).
Unlimited for $30/month.
$10 
Buckeye BroadbandCable10 GB / Unlimited$10 
Cox  CommunicationsCable1.25 TB$15 
MediacomCable400GB - 6,000 GB$10 
Suddenlink CommunicationsCable350 GB for 200Mbps or lower plans.
Unlimited (faster plans).
$15 
XfinityCable1.2 TB.
Unlimited for $30/month or users who rent equipment.
$10 
Many U.S. broadband Internet service providers impose monthly data caps on the users.

Some data caps are actually high. 1.2 TB, for example, is generally three or four times the total amount of typical use some would use before. So, these data caps are hardly an issue—except when you're a victim of a poacher—if things have remained the same as before 2020.

But things have hardly remained the same for most of us in the past couple of years. Now, with everybody staying home most of the time, those many extra online hours make a terabyte no longer that large.

Digital data in brief: Byte vs. bit

As you read this page, note that each character on the screen, including a space between two words, generally requires one byte of data.

The phrase "Dong Knows Tech," with no quotes, requires at least 15 bytes, and likely more since the formatting—such as capitalization and font—also needs extra storage space.

Byte—often in thousands or kilobytes (KB), millions or megabytes (MB), billions or gigabytes (GB), trillions or terabytes (TB)—is generally used to convey storage space to total data usage. For data transmission, we use bits.

One byte equals eight bits.

One million (1,000,000) bits = 1 Megabit (Mb).

Megabits per second (Mbps)—the number of megabits being manipulated in one second—is the common unit for data transmission nowadays. Based on that, the following are common terms:

  • Fast Ethernet: A connection standard that can deliver up to 100Mbps.
  • Gigabit: That's short for Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) and generally means transmission speeds in Gigabit per second (Gbps), currently the most popular wired connection standard. 1Gbps = 1000Mbps.
  • Gig+: A connection that's faster than 1Gbps but slower than 2Gbps. It often applies to 2x2 Wi-Fi 6/6E or Internet speeds.
  • Multi-Gigabit: That's multiple Gigabits—a link that's 2Gbps or faster.
  • Multi-Gig: A new BASE-T wired connection standard that delivers 2.5GbE, 5Gbe, or 10GbE over CAT5e (or a higher grade) network cables, depending on the devices involved, and is also backward compatible with Fast Ethernet and Gigabit.

Multi-Gig explained: Faster-than-Gigabit and beyond.

Data-intensive applications

We use the Internet for many things, and not all applications use data equally.

Reading the news and handling emails are generally relatively light on data. However, media streaming and video conferencing can be very taxing on the bandwidth.

The longer you stream, the more bandwidth you use. That's obvious. However, the amount of data used per streaming session can vary significantly depending on the type of content. We generally only need to care about HD quality and higher. Content of lower qualities (480p, 320P, or 240p) uses little bandwidth.

Here's how much data an hour of streaming eats up on a single device:

  • Non-HD content uses from .3 GB to .7 GB of data per hour.
  • 720p (HD): about 1 GB.
  • 1080p (Full-HD): about 1.5 GB
  • 2K: about 4 GB
  • 4k (UHD, Ultra HD, HDR): about 12 GB

Video conferencing is the same as HD or full-HD streaming but generally uses double the bandwidth—about 3 GB per hour per device for full-HD—because it uses both download and upload.

Let's do some math. With an Xfinity cable plan (1.2TB data cap), you'll be able to stream roughly 800 hours of Full HD or 100 hours of 4K. Divide 800 by the number of simultaneous streaming devices, and you'll see how long it takes to run out of the monthly allowance on content streaming alone. For example, with ten devices streaming 4K regularly, your data cap won't last more than a day of waking hours.

We use the Internet for a lot more than just streaming. Here are a few examples of applications that can eat up your data cap fast:

  • Cloud-recording security cameras: These security cameras—such as the Arlo, Nest, or any that doesn't use a local storage device—upload footage directly to a remote server. Depending on the settings and activities, a couple of them can use up your broadband's upload pipe, which can cause more issues than just using up the data cap.
  • Feature update of the operating system: Windows and Mac often have extensive updates, and each of them can use up a few gigabytes of data per computer.
  • Torrent downloading: Running torrent download software uses up a lot of bandwidth, especially when you set it to work as the "seeder", where your computer hosts the data for the uploads.
  • Cloud backup or sync: Backing up data to a remote server outside your home can use a lot of bandwidth. It's best to use it only for light data, such as text documents or spreadsheets, and avoid using it for photos and videos.

With that, let's move to how we can conserve the bandwidth.

Internet bandwidth conservation via Asus TUF AX5400 Traffic StatisticNetgear RAXE500 Router Traffic Meter
Internet bandwidth conservation: The traffic management feature on Asus (left) and Netgear routers.

How to conserve Internet bandwidth

First off, if you read somewhere that you can switch from Wi-Fi to network cables to save bandwidth, that only applies to your local network, which has an unlimited data cap. In other words, don't bother. (More on network bandwidth in this post.) Generally, the choice between network cables and Wi-Fi—when applicable—is about speeds and latency. In this case, the former is always better.

Again, we're talking about conserving the Internet bandwidth—minimizing the traffic that goes between your home network and the outside world.

Internet bandwidth conserving: Use a router with bandwidth management

The first step in preserving bandwidth is to be aware of what device in your network uses the Internet and what for. The best way to handle this is to use a router with some bandwidth management features, which are available in most networking brands.

Asus has a Traffic Analyzer feature in all of its routers that can provide real-time monitoring and statistics over days, weeks, or months per device or application. Netgear has a relatively rudimentary Traffic Meter feature in its Nighthawk product line. TP-Link has something similar, but unfortunately, it is only available when you opt for the HomeShield Pro premium add-on.

This type of traffic management will give you the overall picture of Internet bandwidth usage in your local network. From that, you can remove the big (and unnecessary) bandwidth waster.

Consider a local (NAS) server

To conserve Internet bandwidth, you need to increase your local storage. You can do that by getting a sizeable portable drive. Then, it's best to get a NAS server—you can turn your router into a mini NAS server if it has a USB port. Alternatively, you can use a computer as your home "server."

The idea is that you create network storage space to keep frequently used data and share that with the rest of your home locally.

The Synology DS923+ NAS shares the same design as other servers including an easy way to install hard drives.
Using a NAS server is an excellent way to conserve Internet bandwidth. It allows you to store and use the same data locally within your home network.

Use security cameras with local storage

Cloud-recording cameras can use a lot of bandwidth and can be a privacy risk. If you need a security camera system, pick one among those with local storage recorded via your Wi-Fi or wired network.

If you get a Synology NAS server, know that all of them have the Surveillance Station app, which I consider one of the best DIY security approaches.

Download online content to your local storage

Download frequently accessed content—(preferably using an unlimited connection, such as when you're at an office or a cafe)—and save it on your home server. Now, you can use the content on multiple computers within the network without having to re-download it on each machine. In other words, you only need to use the Internet to get the content once.

By the way, keeping the data local also helps boost productivity, as you can access it much faster.

Tips: Windows and macOS users should also turn off the auto operating system upgrade. Each time that happens, the computer needs to download a couple of GB of data. That's fine if you have just one computer. If you have multiple machines, it's better to save the update file locally and perform manual upgrades offline.

Examples of the types of data you can download and save locally for repeated use:

  • Software installers: Games, operating systems (Windows, macOS, Linux distros), popular software applications.
  • Large system updates.
  • Frequently watch videos that you can download and keep locally for personal use.
  • Home-made videos and other content shared by your family and friends.

By the way, a NAS server can do a lot more than just hold your data. You can also turn it into a Netflix-like streaming server for local use.

Use local backup, limit cloud-sync content

Use your NAS server as the backup destination for a large amount of data. Ideally, you should use cloud backup for important data and back up the rest locally.

Your monthly Internet data cap applies to both the download and upload pipes, so turning off cloud backup for certain types of data will help a lot with the allowance.

Stream locally and use lower-than-4K resolutions

For content that you can't legally put on your NAS server, use the option for offline streaming.

Netflix, for example, allows you to save many of its shows and movies on your device using the mobile app. That enables you to watch the same content multiple times by downloading it just once. It's also a great way to prepare content for a long trip or when you're staying in an area without Internet access.

But streaming can often be the only way to get content. In this case, avoid 4K and opt for FullHD or HD instead—you can adjust this via the streaming app's settings. Most of the time that makes little difference in the viewing experience.

Tip

Xfinity subscribers can use Comcast's xfinitywifi public hotspot, even when it comes out from their ISP-supplied gateway, to avoid data cap. If they pay attention, they can even hook an IoT device—such as a Smart TV or even an EV—to this network and use the Internet for free when on the go.

Final thoughts on Internet bandwidth conservation: Staying offline

To state the obvious, the best way to conserve your Internet bandwidth is not to use it.

You can read a book, bake some bread, play a board game with your loved ones, or take your kids out for a bike ride or a walk. There are a million things you can do without the Internet that have existed long before the Internet and have proven to be good for you. Most are also free.

Dong's note: I first published this piece on July 22, 2020, and last updated it with up-to-date information on March 24, 2024.

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6 thoughts on “Internet Bandwidth Conservation: Tips on Staying Below Your Monthly Data Cap”

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  1. I have AT&T Fiber at the lowest speed tier for our area, 300/300Mbps, and there is no data cap. As far as I know, AT&T doesn’t have data caps for any of their fiber customers. They used to, but apparently got rid of them a couple of years ago.

    I was surprised to see this, since for my speed tier they said that there was a data cap when I signed up for it. Then I noticed that they were labeling my data as “unlimited”, so the cap has been removed without taking the verbiage out of the web site. The web site description of my speed tier still says that it has a 1TB data cap now, but everywhere else, like where it shows usage, billing, etc., it says “unlimited”. Bad proofreading, I guess.

    Reply
    • That’s great! Thanks for sharing, Roger. Check your usage, however, since stuff only starts to happen when you’ve gone over a certain limit.

      Reply
  2. Re: My Comcast Xfinity Internet account that allows for up to 10 devices to connect to the xfinitywifi hotspot, free of charge. The owner can remove a registered device from the account at any time.
    Two questions:
    1. How secure is Xfinity wifi hotspot given that no password or other assurance is required?
    2. Can I run/assign devices like RING Cameras and Amazon Alexa devices to Xfinity open wifi? (With the aim of freeing up my speed for other connected devices like ADT security cameras because ADT and Xfinity always blame lag/latency issues on each other.)
    Thanks very much.

    Reply
    • Hi Bob,

      1. It’s isolated and managed by Comcast, so it’s secure in that sense. You DO need a password, which is that of your account. This type of authentication is much more secure than a general Wi-Fi password. But “secure” is a vast term, and I don’t think you actually were fully aware of what it entailed when asking the question. So, within the normal degree, yes, it’s more secure than your home Wi-Fi.
      2. Yes, but there’s a bit of work to hook devices that don’t allow you to do account-based authentication to it. You can check out this post for the steps.

      Reply
  3. Being a former Time Warner/Brighthouse/Spectrum user for almost 20 years and currently a Frontier fios 940/880 user, I could not imagine having to be conscious about data caps. One would think competition would have pushed data caps out of the market.

    Reply
    • Well, I just got an email from Comcast warning that I was using 75% of my cap for June. Glad the month is over. 🙂

      Reply

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