Your Guide to Internet Data Caps: How to Stay Within Your Limits


If you have satellite internet, data caps are a fact of life. This is also true for fixed-wireless connections, mobile hotspots, and even many traditional cable and DSL plans. More data means upgrading to a more expensive plan, so conserving those precious bytes is a big deal. Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. With more devices making use of our home networks than ever, it’s easy to hit those data caps without even realizing it.

Whether you have satellite internet or any other internet plan with data caps, we’re going to give you some tips on how to conserve data.

First, understand your data cap

Data is an important factor in choosing a satellite internet plan (as well as many other internet plans). Viasat offers a variety of different plans with different download speeds and data caps, while HughesNet has a fixed speed and advertises “no hard data limits.” Although this sounds simple, data limits are still the main difference between individual HughesNet plans. Once you pass your limit, your maximum download speed is dropped from 25 Mbps to around 1–3 Mbps. That’s barely enough speed to check your email.

Makes sense so far? We’re not done yet. If you do go over your monthly limit, you can buy additional data without having to upgrade to a different plan. HughesNet sells Data Tokens, which cost about $3 per GB of data. Viasat also sells extra data for around $10 per GB of data, though you get a discount when you buy in bulk. The important thing to note is that while HughesNet Data Tokens can be kept and cashed in for extra data later if you don’t use them, Viasat’s extra data expires at the end of your billing cycle, so your unused data disappears at the end of the month.

There are a few more quirks you should know about your satellite plan. HughesNet gives you a “Bonus Zone,” which occurs between 2:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. local time. When you use your internet during these hours, the data you use isn’t counted against your normal data limits but against a cache of 50 GB of Bonus Zone data instead. Some older Viasat plans have a similar “Free Zone,” but its newer Freedom, Liberty, and Unlimited plans do not offer a Free Zone.

It’s a lot to take in, but the main takeaway is that every gigabyte of data is precious on a satellite internet plan. That’s why anything you can do to keep your data usage below your limits is very important.

For more information, check out our comparison of HughesNet vs. Viasat.

Data caps on other kinds of connections also usually allow you to purchase additional data, but unsurprisingly, these data add-ons all vary wildly and come with their own quirks. In any case, pay close attention to the cost per gigabyte of data, as well as whether or not the data expires at a certain time.

How to make the most of your monthly data

Get satellite TV

One of the best ways to save data on your satellite internet is to sign up for satellite TV. At first, this may sound counterintuitive. If the whole point is to save money on my satellite bill, why would you sign up for another service, especially when we’re living in the age of Netflix and Hulu?

Satellite internet and satellite TV bill you in different ways. With satellite internet, you’re paying for a plan with a certain amount of data, and streaming video is extremely data-intensive. With satellite TV, you’re paying for the number of channels you receive. Although a basic satellite TV package won’t give you access to premium channels like HBO®, you can watch the channels you do have access to as much as you want without worrying about going over a data cap. This can also be useful for fixed-wireless customers who live in rural areas without access to cable TV.

If you have DSL, cable, or Fiber internet, chances are your data caps are a bit higher. If you have a 1 TB data cap, for instance, you might be able to use a streaming service and still stay under your limit. If this is the case, you’re probably better off streaming. However, if you still find yourself routinely going way over your data limit, switching to a separate TV service, such as cable or satellite TV, is a good way to dramatically cut your data use.

If it turns out that switching to satellite TV will save you money, the next question is which service to sign up for. DIRECTV offers the most premium channels, while DISH offers more affordable packages. There is also Orby TV, which offers the lowest prices around.

Check out our guide to how to choose between the best satellite TV providers: DISH, DIRECTV, and Orby TV.

Download, don’t stream

Many streaming apps have an option to download content and store it locally instead of streaming. For mobile devices like iPads, this is a handy way to keep watching a show while on the go even if you’re not connected to Wi-Fi. If you’re watching your data use, downloading content is useful because you only have to download a show once, instead of having to stream the same data again every time you watch it. If your plan has a Bonus Zone, you can use this time to download shows that you want to watch the next day, which won’t count against your data cap at all.

This applies to not only video streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu but also to music streaming services like Spotify (if you have Spotify Premium). Basically, if you’re using any kind of streaming services, you should find out if you can download content instead of streaming it.

Remove malware

Malware can have a multitude of damaging effects, but almost every form of malware relies on your internet connection to spread and to do its dirty work. This has the additional disadvantage of using up your internet data while it wreaks havoc on your devices. Make sure that you have decent antivirus software installed on all your devices and run sweeps regularly.

Keep your home network secure

Having freeloaders stealing your Wi-Fi can use up your data very quickly. This problem is most common in urban areas where there might be dozens of homes within the range of your home network. Though less common, this can be a problem in rural areas too. For some, finding an unsecured network down the street might beat driving into town to find a coffee shop.

If you suspect that you might have someone stealing your Wi-Fi, the quickest fix is to change your network password.

If your network is on a second home or vacation home where you frequently host guests or rent out on Airbnb, it’s a good idea to set up a guest network so that your guests will have access to Wi-Fi. Still make sure to give your guest network a password, especially if your house is in an area with a lot of vacation traffic passing by.

Turn off autoplay videos

Many social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have videos autoplay as soon as you scroll down to them. This feature can eat up your precious data allotment pretty quickly.

Fortunately, most apps allow you to disable autoplay, either in the settings menu or in their privacy features. Instagram won’t allow you to disable autoplay completely, but it does offer some tools to keep the app from hemorrhaging data every time you open it. You can go to your account settings and turn on the option to “use less data,” which won’t stop videos from playing, but it will reduce how much data is preloaded.

Meter your connection on Windows

Operating systems like Windows do a lot of activities in the background, such as automatically downloading Windows updates, app updates, and other such functions. It’s generally not advised (and sometimes not possible) to completely stop updates, but you can meter your connection on Windows to keep your operating system under control. Mac doesn’t offer this option.

On Windows, this can be done in the Network & Internet settings on the Control Panel. Find your connection properties and turn on metered connections. Windows will now greatly reduce the amount of data it downloads in the background.

Restrict updates

Although you don’t have the option to meter data on a Mac, you can still prevent your OS from downloading updates automatically. To do this, click on the Apple logo and open your System Preferences. Find the App Store settings in the menu and then uncheck the box next to “Automatically check for updates.”

You can temporarily pause updates on Windows 10 by opening the Settings menu and going to Update & Security. Open up the Advanced options under Windows Update and pause updates. It will let you do this only temporarily, but if you’re getting to the end of the month and are worried about going over your limit, a few days might make all the difference.

Turn off background apps

Lots of apps have their own updates that run in the background. This includes Windows apps, games downloaded over Steam, and many mobile apps. To minimize your data usage, make sure to go into the settings of each one and turn off automatic updates and background data usage. This will allow you to update the programs you want, only when you want them.

Disable settings synchronization

When you sign into your Microsoft account on your PC, the OS tries to sync your settings with other devices that you’re signed into. This can be pretty handy, but it consumes data every time you use your computer.

In order to save data, you can disable this feature in the Accounts settings. If you do make a big change to your settings, you can always turn it back on temporarily, but you probably don’t need to have this feature enabled every time you use your computer.

Limit cloud storage

Storing files in the cloud is very convenient and, for some, an indispensable feature for school or work. Of course, every bit of data you store to a distant server counts toward your data limits. Some activities, like editing a Google Doc, have a relatively small impact. Others, like backing up your pictures to Google Photos or placing a video in a Dropbox folder, can eat up your data fast.

If you have to work on files stored in the cloud, try to work with a local copy as much as possible and only upload it when you’re done working for the day. You can also disable services that automatically back up data to the cloud, though it’s a good idea to turn this feature back on periodically. Losing all your photos because your phone bricked itself probably isn’t worth saving a few bucks on your data plan.

Beware of cloud DVRs

When watching your data limits, it’s important to know where your DVR is storing your videos. Many companies have begun offering cloud DVRs that allow you to store much more video. These include services like DIRECTV’s True Cloud DVR or Xfinity’s X1 Cloud DVR. Although you might still have a set-top box, your data is stored in a server farm, which means that every time you watch your recorded video, you’re streaming it over your internet connection.

If you want to get a DVR, make sure that it stores its data locally and not in the cloud.

Keep an eye on DVR special features

Even DVRs that store shows on a local hard drive often have features that use the internet. Video on-demand services, like those found on the DIRECTV Genie or the DISH Hopper are obvious culprits, but even features like the HopperGO need to use the internet in order to pair with the DISH Anywhere app. By contrast, the DIRECTV Genie can wirelessly connect to Genie Minis in other rooms without needing an internet connection, which means that it won’t be siphoning away your precious data without your noticing.

Basically, if you decide to try a new feature or peripheral device for your DVR, make sure you check to see if it’s going to be using data from your internet connection.

Decide what works for you

This is a lot to keep track of, and as more and more of the devices in our lives start making use of cloud computing and the Internet of Things, it’s most likely going to get harder. That said, you don’t have to play a losing game of whack-a-mole with your devices for the rest of your life just because you have a data cap. If one or two of these tips is enough to keep you from going over, that’s all you need. If you don’t want to give up Netflix, you might be able to still squeeze under your limit with a few changes to your computer’s settings.

If you find that you have to pull out every trick in the book every month just to stay below your data cap, it might be worth it to upgrade to a less restrictive plan.

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