Satellite Internet Data Caps: What You Should Know and Watch Out For

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Last Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Satellite dishes on a hill
For many rural residents, satellite internet may be the only option available.

Satellite internet is a nonterrestrial type of connectivity infamous for being 10 times slower than typical wired connections. Approximately 8.5 million American households — especially rural residents with restricted access to other internet options — have to deal with satellite internet data caps.

On top of data caps, the lack of high-speed internet options in rural or remote areas forces satellite internet users to deal with rigid policies such as data throttling, long contracts, and high equipment costs.

Our guide will tell you everything you need to know about satellite data caps and what you can do to prevent going over your monthly allowance.

What Is a Satellite Data Cap?

A satellite data cap is the amount of data a user has each month from their satellite internet plan. Data caps allow internet service providers (ISPs) to monitor bandwidth usage on their networks and regulate traffic during busy parts of the day. Your data cap depends on your internet speed and how much bandwidth you can use, which you can check in your ISP’s residential service agreements. You can also use an internet speed test tool or bandwidth calculator tool.

Why Do Data Caps Exist?

Ultimately, data caps exist to turn a profit for ISPs. It costs them less than a penny to deliver 1 GB to a customer, so the issue isn’t about maintaining infrastructure but about making more money. When costs are that low for ISPs to deliver data, constraining customers with data-consumption-based overage fees instead of upgrading infrastructure to account for increased traffic looks highly suspicious — especially in an uncompetitive market.

What Happens When Satellite Data Caps Are Reached or Exceeded?

When satellite data caps are reached or exceeded, satellite internet providers impose penalties in the form of soft or hard caps. Plans with hard caps may be given the choice to purchase more data, be charged for the additional data used, or have the connection completely shut off. If you have a plan with a soft cap, you’re charged overage fees or you will have your data throttled.

Throttling is when your data is deprioritized and speeds get extremely slow. It may feel impossible to stream, video chat, or even complete basic tasks like sending emails or browsing the web. Considering the existing latency of satellite technology in America, throttled speeds can feel like your internet is no longer in service.

Less than 1 percent of ISPs in the U.S. offer satellite internet, so the lack of market competition allows them to charge whatever fees they want. ISPs usually bill overage charges in one of two ways: per gigabyte or in blocks of gigabytes. If you go over your plan by 1 GB but overage charges are billed in blocks of 10 GB, for example, then you’re still billed for 10 GB. These restrictive policies and rigid fees give consumers few options, and the easiest requires users to comply with their data cap and reduce data usage.

How Do I Stay Under My Satellite Internet Data Cap?

To avoid exceeding your satellite internet data cap, here are a few ways to reduce data usage:

  • Use compression browser extensions and plug-ins. Compression extensions work by compressing the data on a website before it loads in your browser. Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox both have compression extensions you can install. Apple Safari doesn’t have any compression add-ons, but Chrome and Firefox are both available for macOS.
  • Stick to low-resolution settings. Be mindful of your streaming habits and set video quality accordingly. When available, watch videos in the lowest resolution to limit data usage and preserve bandwidth on your home network.
  • Change your browser and mobile settings. You can find tutorials on how to change settings in Chrome and Firefox that prevent auto-play and even disable images from loading to reserve data. If you want to minimize data usage and stop seeing pop-up advertisements, then ad blocking extensions such as Adblock Plus are available for most browsers.
  • Download content instead of streaming. Downloading and streaming use about the same amount of data, but you can download your streaming library and certain titles on Netflix to prevent excess data usage. Bandwidth limitations cause latency problems, so downloading content frees up bandwidth for other household members and improves speeds by lowering the number of concurrent devices on a home network.

Which Satellite Internet Providers Have Data Caps?

If you’re struggling to stay beneath your data cap, then it may be time to compare other providers and assess their offerings. With only five satellite internet providers in the U.S., options are scarce. Hughesnet and Viasat are the largest providers, comprising 95 percent of the market. Despite the limited alternatives, it’s worth seeing what options are available. Here’s a current list of satellite internet providers in the U.S.:

Provider Soft data cap Download speed Unlimited data
Hughesnet 200 GB Up to 25 Mbps No
Viasat 500 GB Up to 150 Mbps Yes
Starlink None Up to 220 Mbps Yes

The majority of satellite internet service providers are moving toward unlimited data, but Hughesnet, one of the two leading providers that services half of U.S. satellite internet users, still upholds soft data caps. If you’re unhappy with the satellite internet market’s current offerings, you may want to consider other available options.

What Options Do I Have Besides Satellite Internet?

If you’re in a rural area with limited internet options and you want something other than satellite, then fixed wireless internet and 5G home internet are great alternatives. Fixed wireless is a method of delivering connectivity over the air. It’s a cost-effective option for customers who don’t want to invest heavily in new cable and infrastructure. 5G home internet works in a similar way. Fixed wireless data caps typically range from 10 GB to 10 TB, while current 5G home internet plans have unlimited data.

When choosing an internet provider, it’s a good idea to find out how much internet speed you need so your monthly billing plan aligns with your data usage.