Internet data limits and overage charges

TLDR version: What do you think over data limits and overage charges?

Full version:

In the last few days, my news feed has had a whole bunch of stories about Comcast. Apparently, the company is about to start introducing internet data limits in 14 northeast states where they previously had no limit. I use Comcast Xfinity in Connecticut, so this change will apply to my account.

Here’s a couple of examples:

As you can see, the limit is 1.2 terabytes, after which you are charged $10 per 50 gigabytes, up to a maximum of $100 in overage charges.

On the one hand, once the infrastructure is in place, the company’s costs are not really affected very much at all by how much data an individual uses. If I use 1.2 terabytes in a month, it costs Comcast no more than if I use 100 gigabytes. In some respects, these data caps look like greedy “nickel-and-diming measures,” to use the words on a critic in the Washington Post story. The user comments on that story contain hundreds of comments that are basically along the lines of “Fuck you Comcast, you greedy bastards.”

On the other hand, though, I’m not sure that this is the evil calamity that some critics seem to be suggesting. First of all, who the hell are all these people using more than 1.2 terabytes a month?

My wife and I use the internet a lot. We’re on it all the time, often doing high-data stuff. I hold at least five hours of Zoom office hours per week for my students, as well as semi-regular Zoom meetings with colleagues, as part of my job. I create video lectures for my classes and upload the large video files for my students to watch. My wife has to attend online meetings quite frequently as part of her job, and she also uses internet video communication for her weekly dance lessons (1-2 hours) and counseling sessions (an hour).

We also watch quite a bit of TV, sometimes together and sometimes separately. It’s not unusual for her to be downstairs watching a hi-def stream from Netflix or Amazon or Sling, while I’m upstairs watching baseball or football or a streaming TV show or movie of my own. And all of this is in addition to just our regular browsing, email, YouTube, file backups (OneDrive; Dropbox), and my fairly frequent uploading of photos to my photo site.

Despite all of this, and the fact that we’ve both been home basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week since March, our monthly internet use has only broken 500GB once, and that was a month where I went out of my way to back up a large group of media files to my Dropbox account. I know that the data usage meter on my Xfinity account is pretty accurate, because I check it against the meter on my Asus router, which I bought myself and is not provided by Comcast.

According to Netflix stats on their data rate, 1.2 terabytes would allow me to stream basically 100 hours a week (over 14 hours per day) of HD content, and about 42 hours a week (or 6 hours per day) of ultraHD/4K content. That’s a lot of streaming.

I understand that other families are larger than mine, and that they might have different needs, but isn’t it reasonable to ask that the small percentage of people who use the network disproportionately should be asked to pay a bit more? For me, the biggest issue here is not so much the limits themselves, but the rather exorbitant cost of overages. $10 per 50GB? That is complete bullshit, IMO. I could see something like 5-10c per gigabyte ($10 for 100-200 gig), but the current overage charges seem unnecessarily draconian, especially given the almost complete absence of any extra marginal cost for the provider.

Is your internet subject to data limits/overage charges?
How much data do you use?
How often do you go over?
Do you think that limits are reasonable?

We in the Chicago area got saddled with a 1 TB limit a year or two ago (I assume it’ll now increase to 1.2) and it was originally no huge deal. Then my wife canceled the cable so started streaming everything, then she was laid off so home all day (and now works form home) and the older child was on Netflix all day and two of us are gamers so download stuff now and then… we were getting close to the limit every month. After the second time we went over and used the last free “courtesy” months my wife called and got us on an unlimited plan that wasn’t much more than we were paying due to usual bundling lunacy. I think we have a home phone plan with them now despite not owning a phone. I guess they were offering some nice discounts as well during the period where they were giving free unlimited to everyone in the early Covid days if you actually subscribed rather than riding off their largess.

Since then, we’ve hit 1.3 or 1.4 a couple of times. We could probably survive on 1.2, but it’s nice to not have to worry, especially if the cost is minimal. Christmas is coming up and I’ll probably buy a number of games and some of them are turning into very large downloads – you can eat 100gb in a hurry just by downloading a modern video game.

I’d obviously rather live in a world with no limits but Google gave up their expansion plans long before they reached us so, for real high-speed internet in my neighborhood, it’s Comcast or nothing.

It’s a really great time to do it with people in quarantine, work from home, school from home. Really great, Comcast.

I’m not sure this is entirely true. I would expect that the more you use, the more their equipment is likely to fail (likely due to heat), the more you’re going to slow down other people in the area causing them to complain and the more customer service calls your usage is likely to create (from the neighbors that are getting slowed down and from you for general issues that you’re more likely to notice than someone that uses 10% of the data you do).
Also, just to be clear, you, by yourself, might not cause these problems, but when there’s a few dozen households using a terabyte+ each month, those little problems are going to add up.

One other thing to keep in mind, if if your usage doesn’t cause any additional wear and tear, as more and more people go through more and more data, they’ll need to increase their network capacity.

As for the charge, $10/50 gigs, up to a max of $100, doesn’t seem like it’s too much. It’s likely only partially about revenue but also meant to get you to use less data when possible. Like, trying not to fall asleep with netflix autoplaying a TV show or turning off your music when you’re leaving the house or not having your webcams streaming to your phone the entire time you’re at work.

Do they raise or eliminate the cap if you move up to a higher tier? Their endgame may be to get people that are bumping into that limit to move up to the next faster speed.

Cell companies who announced that their unlimited plans had a limit used the excuse that there are a very small number of users that use a lot of data and they were just trying to out them. Saying further that these few ‘bad apples’ were causing slower service for everyone else and straining their network causing them to have to buy more bandwidth which raises costs that have to be passed along (some were using the cellular data as one would use a home connection). The goal was to get these high band width hogs to jump ship to another carrier or find other ways to get their data fix.

I assume it may be something like that, a few using way more then really needed, perhaps running a business server or something, they just want them out.

I think this is a pretty weak argument against caps/overage charges. There are a lot of things that appear to have fixed costs but actually have marginal costs, especially as usage reaches capacity limits. And the infrastructure has to be updated. If the 1% of users who are using 40% of the total capacity are instead limited to using just 20% of the total capacity, that’s a good thing for the other 99% of users.

1.2 TB really is a lot of data. An HD video stream from Netflix is about 5Mbps, which would give you about 18 hours of HD Netflix a day every day to hit 1.2TB in a month. Almost any work/school from home thing you’re doing is actually going to be less data intensive than that. Zoom calls take about 1/3 to 1/10th of that, so you could have six separate Zoom calls running simultaneously, 7 days a week, 8 hours a day and not hit that limit.

This isn’t a limit on any normal use of internet, even very heavy normal use. It’s largely a limit on people who are essentially running a service over a home connection, or downloading absurd amounts of video (more than they can reasonably watch in the timeframe).

Unless, of course, you’re out of school and off of work and between you and the rest of your family there’s always at least one thing and usually several things streaming at any given time.

Apparently the OP is coming close. What you may think is an absurd amount isn’t the question.

Sure. I think all of this is right. I was exaggerating a bit, and these are for-profit companies that not only need to make money for shareholders, but need to have money to invest in infrastructure, carry out repairs, etc., etc.

I still think, though, than the marginal penalties they are assessing on people who use more data far outstrip any marginal costs from high data usage, although you’re probably right that this is also about discouraging excessive use. The companies themselves have conceded in the past that data caps and penalties are not about network protection, but are a business decision. As the second article I linked notes:

Also, data caps and penalties likely won’t have much effect on slowdowns from network congestion, because the biggest factor in network congestion and slowdowns is not overall data limits, but timing. The biggest strain on internet infrastructure comes between 6 and 9 in the evenings, and on Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoons, and holidays like Thanksgiving, when everyone is gaming or watching movies or football or whatever. People might be a bit more careful with their overall usage with data caps, but it won’t stop 60 million American households from firing up Netflix or Steam on Saturday night.

Actually, whatever tier you are on, you can apparently pay extra for truly unlimited service, and this is, I think, a strong argument that the penalties for breaching the caps are reasonable.

Take the guy in my Washington Post article. He and his family apparently used 2.4TB in August, and the same again in September. This would add $100 to his monthly bill under the penalty system. But, if the WaPo article is correct, he could sign up for an unlimited plan for $30* per month extra. If you’re using over 2TB per month, then you’d be crazy not to sign up for that plan, and I think that 30 bucks a month isn’t at all unreasonable.

[*Note: I can’t confirm through my Comcast account whether or not this is the correct price for an unlimited data, because my area is still unlimited until the end of the year, so there is no “unlimited” option to select on the website.]


I said in the OP that we have only once exceeded 500GB, and that was in a month when I uploaded about 250GB of media files to my online backup. Our typical monthly usage before COVID was somewhere about 300 GB, and since COVID it’s been closer to 450 GB. It helps that I spend a bunch of time on the Dope, which uses very little bandwidth.

Luckily my plan doesn’t have a cap. Given that I am on gigabit fiber and regularly move large volumes of data to my office and the cloud, that it a very good thing.

The issue with network capacity is that the providers always under provision consumer networks as there is no guaranteed quality of service. If I have 50 customers @ 100Mb each connected to equipment at the end of the street I may only provision a 1Gb connection to the upstream switch rather than a 5Gb connection. If the average user is only pulling 20Mb at peak usage, all is good.

That being said, exceeding the cap by 40% (500GB on a 1.2TB cap) seems to be disproportionate to the base cost of ~ $100.

You still get 6 hours of 3 simultaneous streams. And, again, lots of uses of the internet use less data than streaming HD video. You could have every member of your 12-person household play a different video game all day and not get close.

At some point I think it’s ok to say that 18 hours of HD video a day is enough. And if it’s not, there are over the air broadcast stations and antennas.

I mean, the OP literally says “What do you think over data limits and overage charges?”, so what I think about it sounds like the question to me. And as the OP has clarified, he hasn’t come close. Just like almost no one with normal usage comes close.

Ultimately, there are real costs to high usage of a network, and it’s not crazy to expect people who use vastly more than the average to pay a higher cost to maintain it. Most actual utilities work this way, for example. There’s some amount of electricity that you get to pay a low rate for, but if you go over that, you start paying overages. Same with water, and with trash. There’s a base rate that’s calibrated to reasonable household usage and above that you have to pay more.

That doesn’t mean that some households might not use more, and do so legitimately, but just like it’s good to learn to turn off lights when you’re not using them, it’s good to not watch 18 hours of video a day as a household too.

The world contains real resource constraints, and it’s not at all unreasonable to tell people who are using vastly more of some resource to tone it down or figure out a way to conserve or pay a bit more.

I’m on gigabit fiber from CenturyLink at a fixed price for life of $65/month with no data limits.

Since it seems to me that the offending companies in these caps and overage and extra charges tend to be companies that also furnish cable tv I can’t help but speculate that their problem is that they don’t WANT customers streaming all day, which might lead to them figuring out that their cable package is an unnecessary expense so they’re trying real hard to get their customers to believe that it’s a natural fact of existence that streaming “too much” will always result in a drastically increased internet bill. Since cable/internet monopolies are the norm in most places, few people are going to know that the overage charges are bullshit since they’ve likely never dealt with an internet only ISP. That’s my gut on this issue.

Those are issues of instantaneous speed, not total monthly data use. The way to make sure one person’s heavy usage doesn’t affect the whole neighborhood is with quality of service throttling, not usage caps.

(Not directed at you, @Joey_P)
This is purely a money grab. Monthly usage caps do not help manage congestion, that is a lie put forth by the cable and telco monopolists.

Let me put it in some numbers. Downloading 1.2TB over a typical 100Mb plan requires 27.33 hours of continuous usage. Sounds like a lot? That is less than an hour per day (even in February). Or, 2.5 minutes of usage every hour every day for a month. If running your downloads at full speed for 2.5 minutes crushes your neighborhoods service, then there is something very wrong with that ISP’s data management.

Every month my house uses about 1.2-1.5TB of data. Why? Backups. Data that still lives in my house is not really backed up, it is just moved to another room. Fire, flood, theft, or some other mishap could destroy decades of data, even if the data lives on both the laptop upstairs and the server in the basement. Offsite backups mean that much of the data coming into the house, also leaves the house. For example, this month Apple released a 12GB OS upgrade. Two Macs download that, so 24GB, then another few tens of gigabytes as the Timemachine backups are moved offsite.

For anybody thinking that usage caps are there to solve problems, recall that most of the big cable companies suspended usage caps last spring, and none of these big problems appeared. Things went on as (pandemic) normal, people used their internet, and ISP equipment hummed along.

I mean, call me crazy, but maybe we shouldn’t be designing our internet infrastructure around backing up multiple copies of an OS Install? Unless you have your backup software configured in a nonstandard way, it’s not backing up the OS image or the system software.

Even then, you’re up to maybe 50GB of data, which is about 3% of what you say you use monthly. And that’s for an OS update that happens approximately once a year.

We also back up multiple computers and it uses a <10 GB a month total. Or less than 1% of the cap.

What are you downloading, though? This is like saying that you blow through the lower price tier of your water bill if you just open up all the taps in your house for an hour a day. Like, that’s true, but it is also true that the vast majority of people don’t need that much water.

If you’re a video gamer a 500GB cap sounds like a nightmare, I recently download Call of Duty: Cold War on PS4 and the download was something like 127GB for a single game.

But bandwidth isn’t water or electricity. It doesn’t run out or get wasted. Unused computing cycles can never be recovered, unused data transfer capacity isn’t stored for later. These are very bad analogies (I blame Ted Stevens).

Why not backup a full OS install or image? Apple thinks that good enough for Timemachine. At work I have people setup with a Windows backup system that makes full image backups. It is great, a drive dies, put in a new one, boot up the recovery tool, and reload from the most recent image. Full images aren’t saved each time, but deltas from one image to the next.

My backup solution is to let Timemachine do its thing for Macs. Then I use another system to backup the Linux computers. Those backups get saved on a ZFS filesystem. Several times per day ZFS takes a snapshot. Each subsequent snapshot comprises the all of the changes to the filesystem since the previous snapshot. The snapshots then get transferred offsite. If all of the computers in the house aren’t doing much, then a snapshot might not contain much data at all. If an update to Minecraft downloaded (and was backed up) then a snapshot might contain a few 100MB, or whatever. Multiply that by several computers used by several people, each changing lots of files. It adds up, just like getting to 1.2TB.

My backups are about 600GB per month. That’s 20GB of changes per day. Of course it isn’t evenly distributed, as Mac update day is much larger than that, and days were I’m not generating changes on my work computer are much smaller.

Sure, but there’s not enough total bandwidth to let everyone with that 100mbps plan run at full speed all the time. So if you have a bunch of users who are doing that on average, say 30 minutes a day, and a few users who are doing it like 5 hours a day, putting in a cap that only affects the top 1% of users gives you a lot more capacity with the same infrastructure.

No analogy is perfect, but again: there are real resource constraints in effect here.

I just checked, my backups for October were 350GB. So less than 12GB per day. Of course that isn’t evenly distributed. Days were I modify multiple VM images, which get backed up, will be much larger than days were not much other than video viewing happens. Those VM images are probably 150GB+ of the backup, as a few changes will amplify causing lots of files on the host to change.

Additionally, because one of the things I do with the VM images is test backup setups for work, they are often backed up twice. Once by the host, and once within the VM by whatever system I’m testing. Not efficient, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not like a double backup uses up a scarce resource. The resource only appears scarce because an abusive cable monopoly has decided to make it scarce.

Again, that is talking about instantaneous usage, not a usage cap. If too many people want their full speed all at once (and overselling is a legitimate thing to do), then throttle the connections down so everybody gets an even amount. You can even add priority. The longer a connection has been at high levels, the less priority it gets. My 6 year old router with a 720Mhz MIPS chip does that. I’m sure the fancy gear ISPs run can do it, too.

That would also be a reasonable policy, and possibly even a better targeted one, but that doesn’t make data caps unreasonable.

Also I don’t believe it’s true that there are no marginal costs to additional data usage.

Switches use more electricity and run hotter (which reduces lifespan) when in heavy use than they do when idle. Peering agreements cost money based on usage. The additional data centers that cache things to reduce the peering load cost money. The costs may not exactly line up with the structure of charges to customers, but that’s true in basically every business.