How to avoid going over your broadband data cap

Managing broadband data caps can be aggravating, frustrating, and—if you go over and incur a penalty—expensive. But there’s hope: You can learn to avoid going over your data cap, with a little knowledge and a bit of patience. Here’s how.

Two of the largest broadband ISPs, Comcast Xfinity and Cox Communications, still impose data caps—though they’re being phased out by many other service providers. If you exceed the limits (1.2TB/month for Xfinity, 1.25TB/month for Cox) you’ll pay $10 for every additional 50GB. AT&T still charges a data cap, too, though only for its legacy DSL service, according to Highspeedinternet’s data-cap registry. All of these providers allow you to pay extra for unlimited data, but who wants to do that?

Minimizing your data usage to stay under the cap requires three things: first, knowing how much total data you’re using at any one time; second, knowing how much data a particular device or app is consuming; and third, actually minimizing data usage. 

How to tell how much data you’re using

All of the ISPs mentioned above list your data consumption on their website. Some also provide an accompanying mobile app where you can find out that information. In some cases the company will also send you a notification when you approach your limit: typically 75 percent, 90 percent, and 100 percent of your quota, in the cases of Comcast and Cox.

Otherwise, you can access your current data consumption at the following links:

comcast xfinity data usage Mark Hachman / IDG

An example of the Comcast Xfinity data-usage screen via a Web browser. Hovering your cursor over the graph will provide more detailed data for the month.

What this information will tell you is how much data you’re using in aggregate. Multiple devices may be accessing the same account: a laptop and one or more phones, for starters. Don’t forget about game consoles, too. While your ISP may not graph your usage on a day-to-day basis, simply checking midway through the month should reveal whether you’re projected to remain under your data cap, or in need of curtailing your data habits during the second half of the month.

How to tell how much data each device is using

From there, you can try to step down the data chain from your gateway and figure out how much each device is soaking up. Your home’s router houses a lot of this information, but most router interfaces are lousy at this sort of thing, especially older models, TechHive executive editor Michael Brown confirms.

One piece of helpful advice comes from Eric Geier, who addressed part of this question in an earlier PCWorld how-to on measuring your broadband speed and consumption. If you don’t want to replace your router, flashing it with aftermarket firmware is an alternative, provided your router has that capability. DD-WRT is one popular aftermarket firmware that supports many router brands and models, but it shows only your total bandwidth usage by default. To find the usage per client or device, you’d also need to install an add-on like DDWRT-BWMON.

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