Everything You Need To Know About Your Satellite Internet Data Cap
Picture this; you've just arrived home after a long day, and now it’s time to relax. You’ve queued up the new Netflix release you’ve been waiting all year for. Then this happens.
If you currently subscribe to satellite internet, this scenario may look familiar to you. Is there an outage going on? Is Netflix having server trouble? Or maybe you’ve unknowingly gone over your satellite data cap, even though it’s only the the middle of the month.
You only got to see the first few seconds, but now you’re stuck with the spinning silence of the buffering wheel. It’s only the middle of the month, but you’re certain that your internet is going much slower than usual. You’re left wondering what happened to your service that it’s going so slowly.
This is an all-too common experience for many Americans -- especially in rural areas. For the approximately 8.5 million American households subscribed to satellite internet service, this is not just an inconvenience, but also a demonstration of how easy it is to exceed satellite data caps, how much that can cost consumers in overage charges, and how throttled speeds can impact your everyday activities.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about your satellite data cap from why the caps exist in the first place to what you as a consumer can do to prevent going over your allowance.
First off, what do we mean when we say “data cap”?
What is a satellite internet data cap?
When customers purchase an internet plan, there are are frequently 10 or more pages of terms and conditions in the Residential Service Agreement they’re required to sign. If the plan is for satellite internet, one of those terms is your data cap. A satellite data cap is a limit on how much bandwidth you can use in any given monthly billing cycle.
There are two important pieces of information to look at when you’re considering purchasing satellite internet services; what speed you are getting, and how much bandwidth you can use. It’s easy to confuse the two, but think of it this way: Your internet speed is how fast you can get data from the internet, and your data cap is how much information you’re allowed to get. This guide is all about satellite data caps. For more information on internet speeds, check out our guide to How Much Internet Speed Do I Need.
Internet speeds are measured in megabits per second (mbps), where satellite data caps are measured in gigabytes (gb) per billing cycle. Billing cycles average one month in length, even if they don’t start on the first of the month.
Depending on the service provider and purchased plan, you may have a satellite data cap as low as 10gb per billing cycle. This means that in one month-long period, your household network can be used to access 10 gigabytes of information before your service is impacted. According to Netflix, the amount of data used to stream for one hour can be as low as 0.3gb, or as high as 8gb! Approximately 1gb of data is used per hour of streaming in 720p resolution. 720p video resolution is considered to be high definition, but it’s in the middle of the spectrum on image quality.
Throughout this article, we will continue to use the 10gb example streaming in 720p. Generally, if your household goes over its data cap, one or more of three scenarios happens. If you have a hard cap and your household has used all 10gb of your data allowance, your service is no longer available. That’s it, no more internet access for the rest of the billing cycle. If you have a soft cap your speeds will be throttled (made slower than the speed advertised in the plan you bought), and there may be additional charges on your bill for data overages.
There are many reasons that internet service providers impose data caps. Now that we know what a satellite data cap is, why do we have a data cap in the first place?
Why do satellite data caps exist?
When internet access first became affordable and available for residential customers, data caps were necessary. At the time, installing the backbone of a network and launching satellites was a significant portion of an internet service provider’s operating costs. These companies couldn’t keep up with the network demands that their rapidly growing customer base needed, so data caps were implemented as a way to manage congestion on their networks while they expanded their infrastructure to meet customer needs.
Satellite providers say that they still need to use data caps to manage network congestion, but there are other reasons regarding technology limitations that providers use to justify continuing to implement data caps. Satellite internet service does come with some technology limitations, but those limitations mostly come down to the speeds available to consumers. Lower speeds do technically limit the amount of information we can access due to the time it takes to download the data, not because there is a lack of bandwidth to download over. Satellite is also susceptible to environmental disturbances from inclement weather. While this does not have bearing on satellite data caps, it can reduce the service levels customers receive prior to throttled speeds.
In an example Residential Service Agreement, it was stated that the service provider uses satellite data caps to create a “fair access” market. In this idea of “fair access” the customers who bought higher tier plans, with higher satellite data caps and faster speeds, are prioritized over customers whose data cap has been reached and are already experiencing throttled speeds when the network is “congested”. Under this method, service subscribers are essentially “getting what they paid for”. However, the Residential Service Agreement didn’t explain how or when the service provider decides if the network is congested or not.
A lot of consumers aren’t buying these justifications though. There are only a few satellite internet providers currently operating in the United States. This lack of competition allows service providers to charge whatever price they decide to charge, and leaves consumers with little choice. Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski once claimed that the use of data caps would encourage innovation and lower consumer prices (for customers who don’t use the internet very much) while also providing additional choices to consumers. Unfortunately, in the six years since he left the FCC, the number of satellite internet providers has decreased and prices haven’t come down.
The continued use of arbitrary satellite data cap limits has created artificial scarcity which increases prices, and drives consumers to purchase larger, higher cost plans that they may not necessarily need. Before purchasing an internet service plan, use a usage calculator to determine how much internet your household needs.
Furthermore, companies exist to make money for their shareholders. A lead lobbyist said “Our principal purpose is how to fairly monetize a high fixed cost.” At this point in time, the biggest reason companies still implement data caps is simply to make money.
Every satellite internet plan currently available includes a data cap, even ones marketed as “unlimited”. It’s easy for consumers to reach or go over their satellite data caps without realizing it; in this case, you may then have a degradation of service without knowing why -- until you get your next bill.
What happens when satellite data caps are reached or exceeded?
There are several ways that your service and internet bill can be impacted if you go over your data cap.
Generally there are two kinds of satellite data caps, hard caps and “soft” caps. Plans with hard caps, soft caps, and plans marketed as “unlimited” are treated differently, and may vary between providers.
If you have a plan with a hard cap, when you reach your data limit your service may be cut off completely or you may be charged overage fees. When you reach your satellite data cap, you may be left without connectivity until your next billing cycle, or you may have a nasty surprise on next month’s bill. Customers with a hard data cap may be given the choice to purchase more data, or may automatically be charged for data used over their limit.
Overage charges are usually billed in one of two ways, either per gigabyte or in blocks of gigabytes. Regardless of how much data is actually used over the limit, overage charges are billed by whole units. For example, if you go over your plan by 1gb, but overage charges are billed in blocks of 10gb, you are still billed for 10gb. If you’re automatically billed for overage charges, your bill can skyrocket before you’re even aware that you’ve exceeded your limit for the month.
When you have a soft cap, your service won’t be shut off, but you may still have overage charges. An unlimited plan works the same way, but customers aren’t charged extra for doing so. Whether you have a soft cap or unlimited plan, your service is affected the same way -- your speeds are throttled. When connectivity speeds are throttled you will experience much slower speeds when compared to the speeds you were getting before you reached your data cap.
Since satellite internet does have technology limitations that impact the speeds available, having your speeds throttled can feel much like your service has been shut off entirely. At extremely slow speeds you most likely won’t be able to watch videos on YouTube or stream content on Netflix. You might have trouble doing simple tasks like paying bills, checking emails, or placing an order on Amazon.
Because the use of satellite data caps leads to throttled speeds, some satellite providers also implement a prioritization scheme where speeds are further throttled during times of “network congestion”. Under these prioritized throttling programs, customers with lower tiered plans and customers who have exceeded their data cap for the billing period will experience even slower speeds than usual, so that higher paying customers experience less impact to their service quality than others. This practice has been justified by service providers as a fair and equal market in which consumers receive the service they pay for regardless of service plan and data caps.
But, you don’t have to worry too much -- there are steps you can take to minimize your data usage without compromising an enjoyable experience on the web.
What can be done to avoid exceeding data caps?
There are a few primary ways to reduce data usage. You can use data compression browser extensions and plugins, change your browser and mobile settings, be mindful of your streaming habits to set video quality accordingly, and when available, downloading content instead of streaming.
Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox both have compression extensions that you can add to your browser. Apple Safari does not have any compression add-ons, however Chrome and Firefox are both available for Mac OS.
Compression extensions work by compressing the data on a website before it loads in your browser. Google offers their own Data Saver extension and Firefox has Save-Data: on. Mozilla recently changed their extension and plugin protocols; Save-Data: on is a third party application, but it has been vetted by Mozilla engineers for safety and security standards. A fourth browser option, Opera has a feature called Turbo that automatically compresses data. Bonus if you’re on a Mac, Opera may be the best bet, not only to save data, but also your battery.
Chrome and Firefox both have browser settings that can be adjusted to prevent videos from auto-playing, and even disable images from loading to really save on data. Tutorials are available to change these settings on Chrome and Firefox. If you want to minimize data usage and stop seeing pop-up advertisements, ad blocking extensions such as Adblock Plus are available for most browsers.
Whether you’re on a computer or using the mobile app, disabling autoplay for videos on Facebook is a small change with major data saving benefits. Instructions to turn off autoplay are in the Facebook Help Center for web browsers, iOS devices, and Android devices. Be aware that the mobile apps have options for preventing autoplay on WiFi and mobile data, or mobile data only. If you’re trying to save on your home WiFi satellite data cap, make sure you select the “never autoplay videos” option. Doing this will also save you data on your mobile plan!
When it comes to streaming video content, Netflix has four data usage settings to choose from. Low, Medium, and High settings are constant regardless of the speeds you’re getting. The fourth option, Auto, changes the video resolution based on the internet connection speed. This may be a good option for some, but the Auto setting defaults to the highest possible resolution. You’re better off sticking to Low and Medium for optimal data saving. If you have an older television, bought more than 10 years ago, streaming on the Low setting should provide a perfectly acceptable viewing experience in 480p. If you have a newer television, most likely purchased in the last five years, you will notice more pixelation watching in 480p. In this case 720p is a better option using the Medium setting if you find the image quality to be bothersome.
While downloading and streaming do use about the same amount of data, Netflix allows downloading of some titles on some devices. By downloading titles to watch later, you can prevent excess data usage due to bandwidth limitations that can cause reloading problems, as well as free up bandwidth for other household members to use while another member is watching downloaded titles. This will not significantly change your data usage, but it will improve speeds by lowering the number of concurrent devices on a home network.
If music is more your thing, you can download your streaming library to most devices from Apple Music, Google Play, and Spotify. You may need a premium subscription to be able to download your music.
Other Options for Consumers
Stop The Cap! Is a consumer protection and advocacy group with a lot of valuable information about equal and fair access to broadband, alternative service providers, and current issues surrounding monopolies within the telecommunications field.
If you’re in an area with limited internet service options and are considering making a change, it may be worthwhile to look into Fixed Wireless and Mobile Broadband availability in your region.