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What is Unlimited Internet Data?

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

An unlimited internet plan has no data caps or other restrictions based on your data usage. Simple, right? Unfortunately, providers tend to stretch this definition and muddy the waters for those of us who just want a hassle-free internet plan.

If you’ve been on the internet for a while, you’ve likely had to deal with data caps looming over your internet use at one time or another. Fortunately, internet service providers (ISPs) noted how unpopular data caps are, and unlimited data is quickly becoming the norm for most kinds of internet connections.

This trend is encouraging, but plenty of Americans still have to be wary of hitting these somewhat arbitrary data limits each month. More aggravating is that many people don’t know what their home internet data cap is. This is partly because the term “unlimited” is thrown around loosely, so we’ll be precise and get into what most people mean by unlimited data and how ISPs can use it in misleading ways.

What is a data cap?

A data cap (aka data limit, data restriction, or data allotment) is an intentional restriction on the amount of data that can pass through a network. For most residential internet customers, this means you get a certain amount of monthly data that you can expect to perform at advertised speeds with no unexpected costs. The size of data caps ranges wildly, from terabytes worth of data on some wired connections to less than 100GB on wireless connections like satellite internet.

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Data caps generally reset with your billing cycle, so if you hit your data cap halfway through the month, your ISP will restrict your connection until your next bill is due or you purchase additional data. Some providers will carry over these additional purchased gigabytes to the next month, but in general, you can’t bank up data to use later. Each month starts as a blank slate.

Hard vs. soft caps

Data caps are categorized based on the restrictions placed on your connection if you hit your monthly cap: hard and soft. Hard caps cut your connection off completely when you run out of data, like a coin-op ride when you run out of quarters. Soft caps leave you connected to the internet, but will penalize you by throttling your speed, often to well below the advertised speeds for your plan, or by charging you overage fees that show up on your next bill.

Almost no internet provider in the 21st century has a hard cutoff on data limits. When we talk about data caps, we’re always talking about soft caps. So when providers claim to have unlimited connections because they don’t cut you off completely when you hit your cap, this is an intentionally misleading statement that ignores the standard usage of the term “data cap.” Most ISPs aren’t this brazen, but you do see it from time to time.

Since hard data caps aren’t a thing, most people that talk about data caps don’t specify whether a cap is hard or soft. This also means that if you notice a provider advertising “No hard data caps,” it should be an immediate red flag, because it’s usually a misleading way of admitting that it does have data caps.

Throttling and deprioritizing

Most of the time, when you pass your data cap, your provider will throttle your download speeds until you get more data on your account. These throttled speeds are often much lower than even the lowest advertised speeds for your plan, which can be an unpleasant surprise for those who aren’t keeping track of their data usage.

Deprioritizing and throttling are often used interchangeably, as they both refer to the same artificial restriction of speed for customers who have passed their data limit. The distinction is that rather than specifically lowering its speed, deprioritizing a connection gives network resources to all the other connections first. In other words, the other households on your provider’s network will get their bandwidth needs met first, and if there’s any left over, you can have it.

Net neutrality

While people grudgingly accept having their connections throttled based on data caps, having their connections throttled based on their online activities is a different matter. Bandwidth throttling is one of the central issues in the net neutrality debate and has led to court cases in the U.S. and other countries.

Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs should treat all traffic on their networks the same, rather than picking and choosing what kind of data gets a fast connection. Although the FCC repealed rules that protected Net Neutrality in 2017, states like California have passed their own net neutrality laws to protect consumers.

Whether it’s illegal in your state or not, no one wants to be stuck with an ISP that’s discriminating against their online activities. If you suspect your provider of such skullduggery, we have a whole article on how to tell if your connection is being throttled that you should probably check out.

Overage fees

A more insidious way ISPs can enforce a data cap is by charging overage fees for every megabit of data used over the limit. Unlike throttling your connection, which should immediately get your attention, it’s easy to miss overage charges, especially if you’ve got autopay set up.

Even if you keep a close eye on your internet bill, overage fees can rack up quickly, especially in the case of someone stealing your Wi-Fi or a laptop that got left playing a video overnight. We don’t like plans that come with sneaky fees or monthly bills that fluctuate wildly.

If you have a provider that charges overage fees, make sure you know how much data you actually need to get through the month.

Are you paying too much for your current internet connection? Find other providers in your area and compare prices to find the best value for your household.

Blurring the lines between upgrades and restrictions

While you’ll occasionally see ISPs with strict data caps claiming that their throttled speeds still count as unlimited data, it’s not too difficult to spot the holes in these arguments. Unfortunately, evaluating such claims can get tricky when providers get creative with their data policies and billing systems.

Perhaps the most mercurial internet provider is Starlink, which has had three very different data policies in the span of six months. At the time of its launch, Starlink was the only satellite provider to provide truly unlimited internet data with no data restriction. However, as its network struggled to maintain speeds due to the influx of new customers, Starlink implemented a 1TB data cap to try and manage its network traffic.

Although 1TB is an incredibly generous data allotment for a satellite plan, this move was not popular among Starlink fans. After just a few months, the data cap was gone, replaced with a tiered system of three service plans. Starlink residential customers now use the Standard service plan by default, which has unlimited data. Customers on the Standard data plan can upgrade to Priority by purchasing limited data in chunks starting at 1TB. As you might expect, customers paying for Priority data have their data prioritized over those with the Standard data plan.

If paying for data to avoid having your connection deprioritized sounds a lot like a data cap, you’re not wrong. It’s a roundabout way of getting back to the same unpopular 1TB cap that it just replaced.

Although this is a far cry from the straightforward billing plans we like to see from an internet provider, there are some important differences between Starlink’s unlimited Standard data plan and the providers that pretend their soft data caps don’t count. First, the Standard plan is the default for Starlink customers, not a punishment. This means that Starlink customers should still expect to get the advertised speeds for their plan, even if they might be on the lower end of the advertised speeds.

Secondly, although Priority data is required for certain features like Starlink Roam’s in-motion internet, customers aren’t forced to pay for Priority data in the same way some ISPs charge overage fees. If you pay for Priority and run out of data, you’re downgraded back to the Standard data plan, rather than to a nebulous punishment tier.

In summary, while it’s technically accurate to say that Starlink no longer has data caps, there are a lot of asterisks next to that claim. Since it does have some data plans that are limited and customers might have to pay for those plans to access the top ranges of their plan’s advertised speeds, Starlink is far from a clear example of what we mean when we talk about unlimited data, even if it checks the box when doing a basic comparison to the competition.

Do we need data caps?

With so many providers ditching their data caps completely, are data caps even necessary? In most cases, we’d say no. Although they’re pitched as necessary tools for network management, most providers can easily get by without them. This was put to the test at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many providers temporarily suspended their data caps, despite the increase in internet traffic.

Additionally, providers have better tools than data caps for managing their network. While most of these are technical improvements that work behind the scenes, many providers also have a fair-use policy that allows them to deal with individual users that try to monopolize the network’s bandwidth to the detriment of other customers. This is a much more effective tool than data caps, particularly those coupled with overage fees that customers might not realize are showing up on their bill.

While modern fiber and cable networks are too robust to actually need a crude tool like a data cap, satellite networks still seem unable to function without them. All geosynchronous (GSO) satellite providers use some form of data caps. Although it initially looked like Starlink would prove them unnecessary for satellite, too, it also had to implement new data restrictions to manage network traffic. It seems like satellite internet will continue to rely on data caps for the foreseeable future.

Unlimited data plans

Data caps haven’t disappeared completely, but it’s getting easier to avoid them as more providers offer unlimited data. We like providers that have simple billing and don’t impose unnecessary restrictions, so a provider ditching its data caps is a really good sign.

Top unlimited internet providers

ProviderConnection typeSee internet plans
Google Fiber Fiber
Fiber, 5GSee Plans
Fiber
Spectrum Cable
T-Mobile Home Internet 5GView Plan
EarthLink Fiber, DSL
Windstream Fiber, DSL
Frontier Fiber, DSL
Optimum Fiber, Cable

This is far from a comprehensive list, as the number of truly unlimited internet plans continues to grow. It’s also always a good idea to look closely at an ISPs claims of unlimited data to make sure there’s no restrictions hiding in the fine print.

For a more in-depth analysis, check out our comparison of unlimited internet plans.

The bottom line

Data caps are often justified as a necessary tool for network management, but in practice, they’re more often used as a way to sneak large fees into people’s monthly bills. Although some providers can’t realistically eliminate data caps altogether, particularly for satellite and other wireless connections, most can eliminate them, and many already have.

If you work from home, download large files, or use streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, unlimited data should be an important factor when choosing an internet provider. Even if your internet usage isn’t as bandwidth-intensive, unlimited data is still a good sign that a provider isn’t going to hit you with a flood of hidden fees. Even if data caps aren’t a dealbreaker for you, they can still be a tiebreaker.

Are you looking for a plan with unlimited data? Enter your zip code below to see which providers are available in your area.

Author -

Peter Christiansen writes about satellite internet, rural connectivity, livestreaming, and parental controls for HighSpeedInternet.com. Peter holds a PhD in communication from the University of Utah and has been working in tech for over 15 years as a computer programmer, game developer, filmmaker, and writer. His writing has been praised by outlets like Wired, Digital Humanities Now, and the New Statesman.

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