Are You Facing Internet Data Caps? How to Combat Them and Avoid Bigger Bills

What you can do to avoid paying more for your internet use, and why you should care even if your carrier isn't the worst offender.

Comcast has imposed a data cap for all of its subscribers nationwide after testing the idea in a few dozen cities. What it means is that customers who exceed a data limit of 1 terabyte in a month are charged overage fees of up to $200. And, no, the company won’t lower your bill if you come in under the limit.

Comcast was the first to do this, but they have opened the way for other companies to do the same — including Cox Communications, the third-largest U.S. cable company. Cox has instituted data caps and overage charges in many of the 18 states where it provides service, recently adding four more states, ArsTechnica reports.

Comcast and executives of other cable companies argue that the overage charges are fair because they charge more for heavy users — and that only a small percentage reaches the data limit. But critics of the move argue that the overage fees amount to opportunistic pricing by cable companies that, in many markets, hold a monopoly on service. By imposing overage charges on streaming video, cable companies may discourage customers from viewing content on services like Netflix and Hulu, and instead opt for cable content. Thus data caps become part of the larger argument and legal battle over “net neutrality.”

Money has a great explanation of the argument over data caps — or “thresholds,” the term preferred by Comcast.

But here’s the bottom line: All users in a household with Wi-Fi are consuming data, so if you’re watching YouTube videos while your spouse is watching “Game of Thrones” in another room, it adds up. Your data usage includes sending emails, reading the news, playing games online, using your home Wi-Fi to get around your cellphone’s data limits — all these activities count. (And let’s face it, we’re all using more data by the day. By 2020, some 15 percent of internet users are expected to require 1,000 GB (1 Terabyte) of data monthly, according to an expert quoted by Money.)

So — until and unless the FCC puts an end to the use of data caps — here’s what you can do if you are facing one.

1. Watch Comcast’s own stuff

Comcast’s own streaming services, such as OnDemand and StreamTV, as well as regular TV, don’t count toward the monthly data metering. So, if the show you want to watch is on both Netflix and OnDemand, watching it on OnDemand will help you stay under your limit. (However: This is actually the root of the net neutrality complaint against Comcast. Other companies argue this amounts to forced favoritism that may be forbidden under federal regulations.)

2. Secure your router

If you haven’t got a good password on your router already, it’s even more important that you install one now. If someone else is using your Wi-Fi, they’re eating up data and you’re paying for it.

3. Use your phone if you can

If you happen to be one of those folks who still has unlimited data for their phone, you can use it to create a Wi-Fi hotspot for streaming on your other devices. If you don’t know how to do this, here are instructions for set up on iPhone and Android. Of course, if you have a data limit on your phone, this won’t be a money-saving workaround.

4. Double-check it

Comcast has been known to make mistakes in tracking how much data you use. While they offer most customers a way to check their usage, you’re generally left taking them at their word. One way to double-check is to install a third-party firmware in your router. This can help you keep tabs on your data use and give you ammunition if they say you’ve gone over the cap when you haven’t. It has the added bonus of often being more difficult for hackers to break into.

5. Vote with your feet

Cable companies have a functional monopoly in most places. If you are one of the lucky handful of people who have another cable option, exercise it. At least one major provider, CenturyLink, recently dropped data caps — and announced it would refund customers who had paid overage charges in its experiment with the practice, according to ArsTechnica:

Data caps have generally headed in the wrong direction for consumers in the U.S. home internet market, and customers seldom have much choice in the matter because of a lack of competition. But the good news is that CenturyLink has apparently decided that the extra revenue to be made from overage fees isn’t worth the increase in angry customers.

Alternatively, consider using a satellite dish, DSL or FiOS. While these internet solutions have problems of their own, switching means that Comcast loses market share, which may be the only thing that would make the company reconsider its data cap policy.

6. Lobby the government

You can voice your opinion by filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. Admittedly, this is an uphill battle with President Donald Trump in the White House, overseeing an FCC that is trying to undo the framework called “open internet rules” that were put in place under the last administration. But convincing the powers that be to declare the internet a utility and to regulate it — like electricity or natural gas — is one of the few ways to see real relief. Otherwise, given their dominant position in many markets, Comcast and other cable companies can engage in money grabs like this with impunity.

Have you run into the caps? Have you any strategies to avoid them? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Kari Huus contributed to this post.

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