Ways for Cord Cutters to Avoid Data Caps

You’ve finally done it.  You’ve cut the cord from your Satellite, Telcom, or Cable TV package and you’ve migrated over to Over The Top (OTT) streaming services like Sling, Netflix, and Amazon Prime for TV content.

You’re as Free as a Bird Now…or are you?

As it turns out, you’re not.  Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) let you cut the cord from their TV programming package, but they still have you on a short leash (or cable in this instance) connected to your modem- It’s called a Bandwidth Data Cap, and it’s a pretty common practice among the ISPs.

Here’s an example of the data caps as laid out by our local cable provider.

Ways for Cord Cutters to Avoid Data Caps
An example of ISP Data Caps by Plan

 

Note that it does not really matter what your download package speed is because you still have a monthly data cap of 1024Gb (1 Terrabyte).  Ironically, if you buy a higher monthly data rate from your ISP, all you are doing is reaching your cap faster (and paying overage charges of $50 per extra Gb over 1024Gb) if you are a high-volume content streamer.

We typically use about 200 Gb of data per month on our ‘Essential 30’ plan, depending on available sporting events we watch and the level of Netflix bingeing performed by Mrs. Gubmints.  But this month we’ve been approaching the data cap at a high rate of speed, and I had to do some digging to find out why:

Ways for Cord Cutters to Avoid Data Caps

I found out that we were streaming data at 1080P resolution in the house, even on devices that only support the lower 720P resolution.  This is kind of like putting 91 octane fuel in a Prius.

This is because your streaming service and your Internet Service Provider have diametrically opposing goals.

Your cable company makes money by renting you a straw to drink from their bandwidth lake every month.  But they have to limit the total volume each customer sucks through each straw every month, because if everyone drinks too much the cable bandwidth lake runs dry.

Your streaming service (Sling, Netflix, etc) wants you to have the best experience.  They compete with each other by packaging the best content they can source along with the best picture viewing experience every month.  The best streaming package experience usually means streaming services provide you with the highest resolution stream (and highest data rate) your ISP connection can support.

So that’s the Cord Cutter’s Dilemma-  The Cable ISP restricts the size of your monthly data bucket, while your Streaming Services attempt to open your data hose wide open.

So how do you get the best viewing experience as a cord cutter without hitting your ISP monthly bandwidth data cap?  This took some research.  Here’s what I figured out, in ascending order of significance…

8 Ways for Cord Cutters to avoid Data Caps

1. If you live closer than 40 miles to TV broadcast towers, get an Over-The-Air (OTA) TV antenna and a whole home DVR.  Just like the first rule of Fight Club is that there is No Fight Club, the First Rule of avoiding ISP Data Caps is that you don’t stream Broadcast TV channels that are already free.   Once your antenna locks in on the digital TV broadcast, the picture is way better than a compressed streaming picture anyway.

Related: Comprehensive Cord Cutting Guide

2. If you have a Roku Player Box (not a Roku TV), go to the Roku box menu and dial down your display settings.  Dial it down to the minimum display size that still looks decent from where you sit and watch your TV.  In my case, I dialed it down to 720P.   In any case, your Roku Box display setting should NOT exceed the display capability of your TV.  That is, if you have a 720P display, don’t bother pumping 1080P out of the Roku player box- you’re throwing those extra pixels (and downloaded data) away.

For reference, here are the expected hourly download rates by screen resolution (H/T to Bob Cringely):

Ways for Cord Cutters to Avoid Data Caps

3. If you have a Roku TV, use your remote to open the ‘secret menu’ that throttles your data download bitrate.  In my case, I used the Bitrate Menu and throttled back to 3 Mbps, which is fine for 720P, but too slow for higher resolution streams like 1080P and 4K. (H/T to Gardner Lonsberry at lifehacker for the Roku Secret Menus).  Btw, you have to press the buttons in rapid succession to get to the Roku Secret Menus, and you may have to verify your settings are still in place at every firmware reset, power loss, etc…

Ways for Cord Cutters to Avoid Data Caps

4. Dial back your streaming settings on Netflix. If you have a Netflix account, you can log in to Netflix on your computer and set your streaming resolutionNote that this only works for your Netflix viewing and has no effect on Prime Video, Hulu, YouTube etc.

Netfilx streaming settings are :

  • Low (0.3 GB per hour)
  • Medium (SD: 0.7 GB per hour)
  • High (Best video quality, up to 3 GB per hour for HD and 7 GB per hour for Ultra HD)
  • Auto (Adjusts automatically to deliver the highest possible quality, based on your current internet connection speed)

5. If you have some other brand of Smart TV and it allows you to adjust the bitrate/download rate, adjust the download rate.  If your Smart TV does not have this setting, then it isn’t really a Smart TV, and you should just go ahead and get a Roku box for $40.

7. Use your router’s Media Prioritization settings and throttle the bitrate to Smart TV’s and Roku boxes.   Many Routers have Media Prioritization for streaming.  You can assign your TVs or streaming boxes High/Medium/Low Priority and throttle their bitrate here:

Ways for Cord Cutters to Avoid Data Caps

8. Not sure how to throttle your data rate on your streaming box or smart TV?  Then manage the bitrate by watching the stream through your Android device or Windows device, and then mirror the device content to your smart TV.  The method to mirror your Android or Windows device to a Roku box or Roku TV is found here.

7.  If you have a 4K or Ultra HD TV, you may have luck with Upconverting (or Upscaling) a 1080P (or even 720P) video stream.  The reviews on upconverting are mixed at this point, but video processing hardware gets cheaper and faster every day.  Your experience will vary based on your 4KTV, but here is a good writeup from CNET explaining 4K Upconversion and its limitations.

So there you have it.  I’ve outlined 8 different methods to ensure you maximize your Cord Cutting enjoyment without getting caught in the ISP Bandwidth Data Cap trap.  Enjoy!


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