Data caps suck. They don't address the problems that exist in any meaningful way, and are simply a method to get money from your pocket into someone else's bigger, fancier, designer pants pockets. All of us know this on some level, but if you're curious why and how they aren't the safety net carriers and providers claim them to be, you'll want to watch this video. It does a fine job explaining TCP/IP network congestion, "power users" that hog bandwidth, streaming services, and why none of that is addressed by capping a users data.

This won't likely change anything, but at least now we can be a bit better informed the next time someone on the other side of a counter tries to talk you into a higher priced data plan.

Source: Blogphilo; via Gizmodo


Reader comments

An easy to understand explanation of why data caps suck


I like Sprint's unlimited data plan, but the lack of 4G sucks.

Posted on a crappy iPhone, will be getting a Galaxy Note 2 in two weeks!

My family jumped the att ship onto Sprint so I'll be following checking if they get good coverage in east bay area.
I failed to convince to head to tmobile: no iphones. Old folks and their iphones!

Net10 MNVO sucks ballsacks around the bay. I'll be returning to tmo soon.

@exaugeo - I am from the East Bay (fairfield/Vacaville) and sprint allowed me to cancel my contract as there have been nothing but issues since April. Not sure if your more in the Concord / Walnut Creek area but service out here SUCKS now! Just thought I'd share that without before you officially jumped ship!

from an ex Sprint fan

as a network administration major, in all technicality his argument is right, but in reality data caps help.

he is arguing that because all data packets have the same priority in the tcp/ip protocol, that the "mega user" DOES NOT make the "average user" suffer. He is right and wrong.

the average user does suffer, but so does the mega user. Even though all packets have the same priority there is still a limited bandwidth. So if all the bandwidth is used up, then throughput (FOR the end user, NOT for the network) also slows down strictly because of the TCP/IP protocol- (everyone's) packets have to wait for their turn to cross the network.

the idea behind data caps does suck and is stupid, but its the simplest solution they can come up with.

it goes like this:

A) people know they will have to pay more to go over
B) so, they will try not to go over by using less data
C) since they dont use the data then there will be less traffic overall
D) allowing the full bandwidth speed to be preserved for everyone equally

they suck but unfortunately they do help.

(btw I have sprint and have noticed a MASSIVE drop in speed since the iPhone was released however long ago, but now its slowly getting better again)

Good point. I've had the idea that carriers should allocate data like they used to allocate minutes. Give unlimited usage within a given time frame of the week to help smooth out the spikes where usage is at its highest.

I like this idea. Back when I had AT&T (thank goodness those days are over), I enjoyed my unlimited nights and weekends for voice minutes. The same for data would be awesome. The only problem I can think of is that data is typically consumed by devices that are smart enough to have a timing mechanism so the user can kick a script off to do heavy data usage (downloading entire movies, etc.) and then go to bed during that free period and make the usage really spike up then. Voice minutes required someone actually being up at night talking instead of sleeping.

Most people just want to be able to update theyre social media apps and email and get decent speeds while surfing the web.

Why should customers be worried about this?

Why should customers feel the need to track the usage of the products carriers are selling and advertising does everything they are looking for?

Seems like a cheap tric to me.

Caps are about one thing and one thing only MONEY!

he explained how the "congestion" actually works later in the video though. his comparison to heavy and average user was their total data usage. not how much they're both using of "the pipe" at once. there's the distinction.

but yes, it does suck for both people. i wish he had gone into what ISP's are talking about when they say that i, as a customer, "share" the bandwidth of my immediate area, and if someone in my condo complex is streaming tons of shit and downloading all day it's going to slow me down. i would like technical details on that. (as opposed to the example of someone coming to my place and using MY connection)

caps should not be the solution though. "widening the pipe" so that all of the users in an area can use their connection they pay for without crowding each other out and without needing data caps to scare them into less use should be the REAL end goal of broadband adoption in this country.

EXACTLY. Jerry always posts the "give it to the man" posts, and sometimes it is a bit illogical. Yes, they are making money, but you con't tell me that Android Central doesn't wish to make more and more money every day. They do. Everyone does, and we all find ways to do it.

Point being, if data caps are used, then less people will want to use data, which means less people will be on the network, which JUST AS THE VIDEO SAYS, will improve network performance.

Watching this video made me understand why data caps are actually necessary sometimes, not why they are bogus. I actually had more a loathing for data caps BEFORE I watched this video.

The maker of the video says it himself: it's not the amount of data that is hurting, it is speed of the network. If I was running a wireless company, I would want plenty of speed for the users.

Maybe that is why Sprint's network is so slow? Too many people using it? I know they are 3G, but I don't even get 3G speeds on my phone. Maybe because Boost MObile is using it, Virgin Mobile, Amazon readers, "Assurance wireless," and a bunch of others are using the Sprint network.

According to this video that is why I am getting 100K speeds on 3G all the time.

I would be better with data caps if they were hard caps. The idea that we need data caps, unless you wanna spend more money, then the caps dont really matter as long as your wallet is open

That's a good point. Networks are basically saying "hey, we want to make sure everyone gets the speed they're paying for... unless you're willing to pay us more money, and then we're fine with you hogging all the bandwidth and degrading the speed for all those cheap bastards who use less data". There's no doubt that there are real bandwidth issues with data hungry users, but at the same time it's also pretty obviously a money grab by the carriers as well.

Personally, data caps and overall plans have pushed me to use WiFi more, switch to a lower tier plan (currently on 150 megs for $15) and overall simply use my phone less. My phone is over 6 months out of contract, and because of my decreased usage, I don't have any plans of upgrading it anytime soon - it does all I need it to do. So for me, I'd have happily continued to pay $30 a month for unlimited data, and would have most likely upgraded my phone and locked myself into another 2 years of service had the plans remained the same. The caps resulted in me switching to a $15 a month plan and not upgrading my phone.

I've become exceedingly fatigued with ultra-profitable corporations dreaming up ever new ways to drain money out of my wallet, and I'm to the point where I'm starting to question if I need X service at all. I stopped paying for TV, stopped paying for Netflix, and I'm close to stopping paying for cellular data. The value proposition is starting to be unjustifiable.

What's really surprising is how little I miss the services I've turned off after a short adjustment period, which simply further reinforces how unnecessary said services were all along.

Verizon Unlimited-data-until-they-come-up-with-some-backhanded-way-of-taking-it-away plan! Yay!

Right there with ya. Using my Gnex as a hot spot with 4G LTE until they pry it from my cold dead hands. Than it is off to another company (IE Probably Sprint *Sigh*)

Yes sir, buying everything retail from here on out. Hopefully I can get another year out of the GNex. By the time the force the issue, T-Mobile might be looking like a more lucrative option.

I'm grandfathered in too. I dig my GNex. I'm not going to be suprised if (when) VZW bends me over and takes it away. I also won't be surprised if VZW brings back their true unlimited data.

The next gen Nexus will be out in a few months. I'll wait until then before I switch carriers.

It'll be either Sprint or T-Mobile. I've recently looked at the prepaids. With the miniscule amount of their "Unlimited 4G" they can all take a hike.

I think it's funny when a carrier says they can't offer unlimited data because it costs too much for them. Well if someone uses a ton of data it doesn't really cost the carrier any extra money at all. It might just make the network a minuscule amount slower during peak times.

It doesn't directly cost them much money (unless it is roaming data). But if it starts to adversely affect the casual users so EVERYONE suffers because a small percent of people are streaming HD video all day, they can potentially lose customers unless they continuously spend gobs more money upgrading and upgrading. So, in the end, it can cost them money.

"Fair" is a hard concept here. For example- are caps "fair"? Is throttling "fair"? Is it "fair" that your web browsing is much slower because of some people on the same node streaming tons of stuff because they are too lazy to connect to WiFi or copy files locally? Is it fair that someone that uses 100MB of data pay the same as someone using 100GB? Is it fair for the ISP to spy on your data usage and decide what is acceptable? Is it fair to have to guess how much data you are using all the time? Is it fair to pay for data up AND down? Is it fair that text messages and digital voice is not just treated like any other data use?

Data caps are even worse in Canada. Most people only have 60 GB/month to use and the plan for that is almost $50/month before taxes. To get 250GB, you need to pay $100/month which is ridiculous.

Then there are the smaller providers who have been chained by the incumbents who control the last mile which charges them on the wholesale price of how much bandwidth they're going to use (not how much of the data cap). The more customers, the more expensive it is for the smaller providers.

In Canada, Rogers and Bell, the two largest Internet providers own a lot of TV channels, services, radio and anything media related. Obviously they don't want you to disconnect your home phone, your cable TV and etc.

In some areas, Straight talk has something worse than advertised data caps. Advertising unlimited that is actually capped.

and throttling for some at 1 GB and never for people who use 20GB. ST, define your policy for data cap for your customers. I was going to switch to ST and have been researching pre-paid options for the better part of a year now, but it just seems as more popular it gets, the more people get throttled for using ~1-1.5GB of data. we need more spectrum...and each of these companies owns a cable service. I say dismantle your cable companies and reallocate the spectrum for what your customers want. Internet access!

I don't want "services." I want a dumb-pipe for my devices that allows me to get whatever I want through it. Host your shows on your websites and charge for access. I'll pay. Plenty of people would. In fact, it would be the best way to deal with the "cable-cutter" problem you've been having (that isn't going away anytime soon.) Think about it. All the same players are still getting paid. They're just getting paid for a 21st century business model that appeals to their customers.

I somewhat agree with you. I like the idea of having an almost super portal that I can connect to and just pick whatever media I want to absorb.

The only issue is you would be changing the way EVERYONE watches TV and there's plenty of people who just want to sit down and have the TV do all the work.

With the direction TVs are going, we're really not far off from that issue being solved. Plugging an ethernet cable into the back of a TV is just as easy as plugging in a coax cable. Each network gets an icon, just like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc. The difference is, no more need for multiple set-top boxes (cable box, DVR, roku, Bluray/DVD, etc). Just you and your TV (and a Bluray/DVD player, if you want) and all the content you can handle.

Not saying it would be an overnight thing but I think it's the direction we should be heading...and we will be if the gatekeepers ever stop standing in the way of progress.

Been saying this since the HTC DNA came out. If we keep buying phones that have no expandable memory, then we play right into the carriers hands. They want us to buy phones with no storage that we will need to use the cloud to store our music and videos. Then we have to stream $$) to use our own content, running up our data usage. Why does the Japanese version of the DNA ( J Butterfly ) have a SD card and the "Verizon" DNA does not? Just sayin'.

What he fails to explain is that the congestion WILL become less because people will use less data if they have caps. Very well put together though.

I think a better solution would be the way they used to limit call minutes. Unlimited after a certain time like 8pm but still limited during the day. I still like T-Mobile's solution from a few months ago; slower speeds after 2gb of usage.

I manage networks, both private and public. We consumers might not like caps and throttling, but this "blogphilofilms" guy is actually not quite correct. Yes, in many ways caps are just a money grab. And it is often mis-managed and unfairly managed. And data *CAPS* are not the really the best solution in most cases. But it is very true that the WAY many users use data really does adversely affect others. And there really ARE data hogs that ruin the "casual" web browsing experience for many others... I see it all the time (both as a user and an administrator). Plus, there really are *finite* resources we are dealing with- bandwidth per tower, per node, per area, per region, per ISP connection. Proper dynamic *THROTTLING* and shaping can be quite effective in many ways and be more "fair."

This is a techno-phile trying to wade into economics of supply and demand in a pseudo-monopolistic environment. Don't try this at home folks because what you get is the absolute stupidity that was just foisted upon us.

We are now all dumber for having watched that video.

Yeah the guy who made the video must have thought "Comcast owns NBC, which used to be majority owned by GE so GE must own Comcast". Comcast did just change their logo though to incorporate the NBC peacock.

The suck is in the packaging, always has been. If they were really interested in congestion they would charge by the GB, or even MB, and make it all you can afford to eat. That way the first sync costs as much the last, and the incentive to curtail use would not be linked to your bill cycle. It was a ripoff when it was minutes, and now that it's data it's still a ripoff.

You know what would make me ok with Data Caps?...Roll Over Data!..Let us freaking keep that precious data we pay for even when we don't use it.

As long as $$$$ and politics are involved nothing will change. Im just hoping google fiber and and google MVNO make it to NYC before they are stopped by the gestapo.

I think this is mostly talking about isps. One thing that the US and Canada doesn't really have is IPTV. For one thing these isp/content providers don't want to provide them and second IPTV takes significant amount of data. Fortunately for me, I have optimum online and they haven't implemented any data caps and watching foreign iptv channels is not a problem for me.

This video is neat and all, but what are we, as consumers, supposed to do about it?

Our choices in broadband providers are usually one, two if you are lucky. There is usually no competition, so you cant just go with someone else. So my question stands, if there is only one game in town, what am I the consumer supposed to do about data caps if that is what my broadband provider decides to do?

I would write a letter to my congress critters, if I were in that situation. The entire point of the FCC and laws around communications are to prevent slavery of citizens to one monopolistic provider who can thrust anything he wants upon you.

Where I live, we can go with the phone company, the cable company, or even less common options like satellite "cantennas" from Verizon or Hughes Net. If you don't like one company, you switch to another.

This video was excellent. There is little that can be done short term, but maybe quite a bit we can do long term, by speaking with our wallets. Sprint and T-Mobile have some version of an unlimited plan. There's also prepaid which is the way I'll be going when the service matures a bit more.

(hoping that will be in time for my contract to expire)

Also buying and using only the most innovative services and those with the best practices rather than the one that's "cheapest". Usually the one that seems to cost the least is giving you a much more insufficient service or they are charging you in smaller fees down the line.

Im all for unlimited as much as the next guy but I could not stand the unbearable slow Sprint speeds. So I jumped ship and headed to at&t. I pay about 10 dollars more (from what I paid on Sprint) for 10GB a month on a shared plan. At home I use wifi and at spots that have at&t hotspots like starbucks my phone automatically connects to those hotspots. It doesnt matter though because with Sprint I was constantly looking for hotpots anyways because their data was (is) so unreliable anyway so It's not like Im changing old habits of looking for wifi. But know w and slow whenever I used data off my phone, it works and it's super fast. I know, it sucks because I am constantly making sure I don't go over (i don't over use it anyway) but my internet works! It's a trade off I guess.

The thing that would make it better is if they upped those data caps to say, 30 gigs a month because some apps are data heavy, or like someone said, rollover data? But oh well, watcha gonna do?

As for home internet, I hope we start getting companies that only do internet and no cable so that we have competition on that front because to have caps at home would suck! Soon we wont be able to use internet at all! We have speakeasy in San Diego but their internet is expensive!

It should be noted that Comcast hasn't been enforcing their 250GB 'threshold' as they call it (it isn't a cap, since they do not stop your service after that limit) since Senator Al Franken voiced his displeasure with how Comcast wasn't counting use of the Xfinity app for Xbox 360's against the threshold.

I'll be going to T-Mobile the next chance I get. $30 prepaid 5GB high speed and unlimited throttling after (it'll be enough for me) better than paying 85 a month for slow Sprint 3G and hard to get WiMAX, with no LTE in the area.

I feel like this video just took a lot of data, when it could have just been a photo with the words "DATA CAPS SUCK!". The additional fluff of information was just a big giant "YAWN!".

It sounds a lot of people are missing the point. I pay $62.50 a month on a split family plan for 550 shared minutes with rollover, unlimited texts, and 200 mb of data. I can pay 2.50 more for the 1 GB shared data but I don't want to give At&t any more money. When my contract is up I am switching to Straight talk. Sure my data goes up to 10,000 kb/s sometimes but that doesn't matter if I am not able to use it. Just give me an unlimited 3 mb connection and I'd be happy and I'm sure a lot of people would switch over and there would be less "congestion" because of the lower speed.