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Internet Bandwidth Explained and Tips on Staying Below Your Data Cap

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In the past couple of weeks, many of you have sent me questions asking about how to conserve Internet bandwidth. That's how to not go over your monthly data cap. Apparently, staying at home all day brings about more problems than just revealing the real couch potatoes we've all been trying to hide inside.

This post will address what you can do to minimize the use of the Internet to avoid the ridiculous fees when your monthly data allowance runs out. Having an unlimited data plan? These are useful tips anyway.

Internet bandwidth: Asus RT-AX68U
Don't blame your router for your Internet data cap.

Why you should worry about Internet bandwidth

It's mostly a matter of money. Your Internet plan generally allots a specific amount of data, called data cap or allowance, to you. That's the amount of data you can transfer between your home and the Internet. 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. But these apply to broadband services, too, at least many of them.

Data caps of U.S. Internet service providers

Not all ISPs impose data caps on their customers, and those that do often offer an "unlimited" plan where you can pay more -- about another $50 per month -- to not have to worry about running out of data.

ProviderService TypeData capMonthly 
Fees per 
50GB extra
AT&TDSL, FiberYes1 TB / Unlimited$10 
Buckeye BroadbandCableYes10 GB / Unlimited$10 
CenturyLinkDSL, FiberYes1 TB / UnlimitedNone
CableYes1.25 TB$10 
EarthLinkFiber, DSLNoUnlimitedNone
FrontierDSL, FiberNoUnlimitedNone
MediacomCableYes400GB - 6,000 GB$10 
Suddenlink CommunicationsCableYes250 GB / Unlimited$10 
WindstreamDSL, FiberNoUnlimitedNone
XfinityCableYes1.2 TB$10 
U.S. broadband ISPs' monthly data caps in 2020

Generally, those with a data cap will need to pay $10 extra for each additional 50 gigabytes (GB). That can add up pretty fast.

Staying home doesn’t help

The thing is residential Internet plans tend to have very high monthly data caps that before 2020, we generally didn't have to worry about them (except when you're a victim of a poacher).

Now with everybody staying home all the time, those many hours of streaming chomp out the bytes and bits much faster than we do popcorns, causing the already expensive cable fees to increase unnecessarily.

Of course, we use the Internet for many things, but streaming is arguably the one that taxes the most on your bandwidth. And it also happens to be the application of which the data usage is hard to figure out.

How much Internet bandwidth does streaming use?

The longer you stream, the more bandwidth you use. That's obvious. But how much data is used per streaming section can change 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. That said, 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

(By the way, video conferencing is the same as HD or Full-HD streaming and needs between .6 to 1.5 GB per hour, per device. Also, if you read somewhere that lists data usage in a megabyte or MB, note that 1 GB = 1000 MB.)

So with an Xfinity cable plan, you'll be able to stream roughly 800 hours of Full-HD or 100 hours of 4K. Divide those by the number of streamers you use; 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.

And again, we use the Internet for more than just streaming.

How to conserve Internet bandwidth

So yes, you should care about conserving bandwidth. But again, it's important to note that it's the Internet bandwidth we're talking about here.

If you read somewhere that you can switch between using Wi-Fi and network cables to save bandwidth, that only applies to your local network, which has an unlimited data cap. In other words, don't bother. You can read more about network bandwidth here.

(You should only choose between using cables and Wi-Fi -- when you can do so -- if you worry about speeds and latency. In this case, the former is always better.)

Synology DS218NAS Server
Using a NAS server is an excellent way to conserve your Internet bandwidth.

Internet bandwidth conserving: Get a NAS server and do things locally

The best way to conserve Internet data is not to use it when you don't have to. That said, the first step is to get a NAS server, or turn your router into one. Alternatively, you can also use a computer as your home "server."

NAS servers: What they are and why you'd love one too

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

Download online content to your local storage

Download frequently-accessed content and save it on your server. Now you can use the content on multiple computers in 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 your productivity since 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 save the installer locally and perform manual upgrades offline.

Examples of the types of data you can download:

  • Software installers: Games, operating systems (Windows 10, macOS, Linux distros), popular software applications.
  • Large system updates.
  • Frequently watch videos that are not illegal to 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. Among other things, you can turn it into a Netflix-like streaming server, too.

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 data that's important, 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 for saving 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 oftentimes streaming can 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 apt's settings. Most of the time, that makes little difference in the viewing experience.

Extra: Take advantage of Comcast’s xfinitywifi public hotspot

If you live in an urban area with Comcast cable service, you might notice the open xfinitywifi Wi-Fi hotspot. You will certainly see one if you use a Comcast Xfinity gateway.

The xfinitywifi hotspot is available to all Comcast Xfinity Internet customers.

A couple of things you should know about this hotpot:

  • It's an open hotspot -- there's no password to connect to it.
  • Only Comcast Xfinity Internet customers can access the Internet through it. (That was possible for everyone for a short period during the beginning of 2020, but no longer since July 1st.)
  • The hotspot is broadcast by the Xfinity gateway that Comcast provides to its subscribers. It uses a separate pipe and won't slow down the subscribers' broadband connection.
  • The use of the hotspot doesn't count toward the data cap of any Xfinity account.

That said, for a Comcast Internet customer, using this hotspot is like having an unlimited data plan.

How to tap into xfinitywifi Wi-Fi hotspot

Again, to use this hotspot, you'll need to be a Comcast Internet customer, or know one who's willing to share the access with you.

The first time you connect a device to the hotspot, you'll have to enter your Xfinity account to authenticate. After that, Comcast's system will remember the device's MAC address, and then it'll be able to connect automatically -- you won't need to authenticate it again.

So it's easy to get a computer, or a phone, connected to xfinitywifi hotspot. But for an IoT device that doesn't have a way for you to authenticate using a username and password, that can be a challenge. Or is it?

Here are the steps to get any device to connect to this hotspot. Let's say we want to connect an HDTV in this case:

  • Get the MAC address of the HDTV in question. Generally, you can find it in its label (or via your router's web interface.)
  • On a computer (like a laptop) temporarily change its MAC address into that of the HDTV. For detailed steps, check out this post on the MAC address - it's easier to do that on a MAC.
  • Use the computer (with the HDTV's MAC) to connect to the xfinitywifi hotspot, authenticate with a Comcast Xfinity account. Effectively, that will make the HDTV's MAC registered with Comcast.
  • Now the HDTV can access the Internet via the xfinitywifi hotspot as though it were a fully open network. Happy streaming!

It's worth noting that each Comcast Xfinity Internet account allows for up to 20 10 devices to connect to the xfinitywifi hotspot, free of charge. The owner can remove a registered device from the account at any time.

If you live in an area without Comcast Internet, another free hotspot, if any, will likely give you the same benefits.

The best way to conserve Internet bandwidth: Stay offline

To state the obvious, the best way to conserve your Internet bandwidth is not to use it. Read a book, bake some bread, play a board game with your loved ones, or just do push-ups for an hour with two kids riding and screaming on your back.

There are a million things you can do without the Internet. They are not necessarily fun but likely good for you. That's what I've been telling myself anyway.

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4 thoughts on “Internet Bandwidth Explained and Tips on Staying Below Your Data Cap”

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  1. 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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.

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


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