Fair Use and Download Limits for Online Video Streaming

Fair Use is a term applied when an internet service provider limits or charges users who regularly use more than their fair share of the internet. While you probably don't think about how much internet data you are using, you may be surprised that you are using more than you think.

If you have a network media player, media streamer or Smart TV, you are probably streaming movies and videos online. Videos, especially high definition videos, are big files, often more than 3GB each. Add them to hours of streaming music, and uploading photos or videos that you are sharing online, and you are sending and receiving a huge amount of data every month. If you are streaming to more than one computer or TV in your household, it adds up fast. 

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Whether an internet provider sends the information from a satellite or via cables, customers are sharing bandwidth—the total amount of data that can be transmitted and received by the internet provider for your neighborhood. That means that you, and all of your neighbors who have the same broadband internet provider, are splitting the potential amount of information that is streamed to each home. It also means that if you or your neighbor downloads more data for streaming, and uploading and downloading media, you may slow down the internet delivery speed for everyone else.

Broadband Cable Providers Often Charge Overage Fees If You Exceed Your Monthly Data Limit

Internet providers want to discourage you from regularly using more than your fair share of data. To discourage piggy internet usage, many companies have created "fair use" limits. Many providers will give you an allotment of data for a set monthly fee, and then charge you extra if you exceed the limit.

For example, with very fast internet services, you may be allowed up to 100 GBs per month and be charged $1 or more for every gigabit that exceeds the limit. If you've passed your limit, a $2.99 Video On Demand streaming rental could end up costing an extra $4 or more. If you regularly stream videos, check with your provider as many offer premium plans with a higher limit — 150 GB or more. 

To illustrate: I surpassed my monthly allotment one month. I used 129 GB. My broadband cable internet provider charged me $1.50 for every gigabyte over 100 GB. I was charged an extra $45 for the month. That makes some of my movie rentals a bit more costly than I'd like to pay.

Satellite Internet Providers May Slow Down Your Internet for 24 Hours

Some satellite internet providers have strict "fair access policies" because of the limited internet bandwidth that must be shared from the satellites. Wild Blue's internet plans include up to 25 GB of data usage per month for their top "Excede" service. This is equal to downloading about 6 HDX quality Vudu movies

Satellite providers often will take action beyond just charging you extra for exceeding your monthly allowance. If you exceed a certain data usage limit in a 24-hour period, for instance, Wild Blue will drastically reduce your internet speed so that you cannot stream media. In fact, the speed will be so slow, you’ll be able to do little more than read emails for the next 24 hours.

These limits include all data. Sending large files or photos in an email, uploading a video to YouTube, streaming movies, and loading any and all of the media from a web page, add up to the total data usage. 

The 4K Factor

In addition to all of the factors mentioned so far, another big thing that will affect your data cap use is the increased availability of streaming content with 4K resolution. If you have a compatible TV, binge-watching those Netflix programs in (House of Cards, Daredevil, etc...) in glorious 4K makes for a great TV viewing experience, if you have a fast broadband connection.

However, if you are a binge-watcher, the amount of data you are using up may result is breaking your data cap limits after just several episodes, as 4K streaming can suck up anywhere from 7 to 18GB per hour, depending what type of compression is being used (usually h.265) — and if each episode is an hour — data use adds up fast.

What 'Fair Use Limits' Mean to You

The point is this: You want to know how much data you are allowed to use each month and how much you have used, so you aren't surprised by extra charges. 

If you like to regularly stream videos and music to your network media players and computers: 

  • Know your limits and monitor your streaming habits for a couple of months.
  • If you are exceeding your limits now, or know that you'd like to stream more high definition movies, shop around for the best internet provider.
  • Choose the right internet provider and plan that provide a high data limit — over 100 GBs, or 150 GBs if you have multiple users in your household.
  • Monitor your usage during the month by checking your account online or by calling your internet provider to learn where to find your current monthly usage.
  • If you are getting close to your limits, choose standard definition videos instead of high definition. Wait until the next month to upload photos or videos to sharing sites.

For some people, an allowance of 100 GB per month is more than enough. 

What Can You Do With 100gb?

  • Watch 2 standard definition two-hour movies per day. Each of them requires about 1.5 GB.
  • Watch 200 "hour-long" standard definition TV shows. TV shows are actually 44 minutes long.
  • Watch fewer than 20 HD movies, or about five per week. A two-hour HD movie averages over 5 GBs.
  • Download 25,000 songs.
  • Play 7,000 hours of online gaming. If you do the math, you can actually only play for 744 hours in a 31-day month.

Remember that each of these items equals 100 GB. While few people will download 25,000 songs and no one could play 7,000 hours of online gaming in a month, you need to consider that you are streaming videos, downloading songs, uploading photos and videos and so forth. And if you have two, three, four or more people in your household — particularly teenagers — you must add up everyone's usage.

More Info

As an example of how an internet provider assigns user data cap limits, here is a listing of AT&T's Data Plans (per monthly billing period of use), as of 2016:

  • High-Speed Internet (DSL) residential service — 150 GB
  • U-verse High-Speed Internet residential service with up to 75Mbps download speeds — 250GB.
  • U-verse High-Speed Internet 100, where offered, with U-verse with AT&T GigaPower includes — 500GB.
  • U-verse High-Speed Internet 300, where offered, with U-verse with AT&T GigaPower includes — 500GB.
  • U-verse High-Speed Internet 1Gbps, where offered, with U-verse with AT&T GigaPower — 1TB

Check with your local internet service provider (ISP) for information on data cap limitations in your city or region.