Clark Howard

Is Your Streaming TV Service Hogging Internet Data?

Have you cut the cord from the cable company and switched to streaming TV? If so, you may want to check your internet data policy.

While many of us are quick to ensure we have adequate internet speeds for enjoying streaming TV without buffering interruptions, it's also important to check on the amount of data you're allotted each month.

You may have what’s called a “data cap” that limits your streaming capabilities.

Many people are on “unlimited” data plans for home internet and wireless phones, but some of those plans actually throttle your speeds after you’ve used a certain amount of data in a billing cycle.

So how do you know how much data you’re going to use for streaming TV in a given billing cycle?

The answer to this is multi-layered. It depends on which services you’re streaming, and what quality of picture you’ve chosen for watching those services.

In this article, I’ll walk you through some of the things to consider when assessing your streaming data usage. We’ll also utilize some research done by a Fiber internet provider to determine which services are most likely to hog your data.

How Streaming Quantity and Picture Quality Impact Your Data Usage

Whether you’re working with a hard “data cap” or an “unlimited” data plan that throttles your speeds at a certain threshold, it’s important to understand how you can control the amount of data your streaming TV subscriptions use each month.

There are three major factors that contribute to this:

  • What picture quality you stream: Watching a movie or sporting event in 4K is the optimal experience, but it's also a real data hog. Picking and choosing your streaming resolution based on what you're watching is key.
  • Which streaming services you use: Not all streaming services are created equal. Some require the use of more data to provide high-definition pictures than others.
  • How many hours per month you stream: Once you know how much data it takes to stream in the resolution you desire, it becomes a math equation. Some people may find they're in no danger of reaching data caps, while others may have to get creative to optimize their experience without paying for additional data.

For the purposes of helping you understand how these factors impact your internet data, we'll be referencing recent research conducted by a Texas-based Fiber internet provider called Tachus. (Note: Use of this research is not an endorsement of their services.)

Which Picture Quality Are You Streaming?

The quality of the picture that you stream has a direct impact on the amount of data that is required to stream it. This is because the data files for the more detailed pictures, such as high-definition, are larger than those required for standard definition.

That makes sense.

But what may be confusing for some streamers trying to navigate a data usage cap is how much more data is required when you opt for better quality.

You may be surprised to learn that streaming at standard definition (480p) can use a small fraction of what it takes to get the same content in ultra-high definition (4K).

According to the research done by Tachus, you can expect it to play out like this:

  • Standard Definition (480p): 0.3GB – 1.2GB per hour
  • High Definition (1080p): 1.2GB – 3.5GB per hour
  • Ultra-High Definition (4K / 2160p): 6.6GB – 9GB per hour

These numbers are presented in a range because they can be impacted by factors such as bandwidth and download speeds.

Which Streaming Service Do You Use?

Not all streaming TV services are created equal. Those of you who stream live TV on a service like YouTube TV know that the experience is much different than a video streaming service like Max, for example.

The differences between the types of services can extend to their data usage as well. For example, an hour of HD 1080p streaming on Peacock uses less than half the data needed for an hour at the same picture resolution on Sling TV.

Tachus tested the hourly data requirements for standard definition, high-definition and ultra-high definition for many of the most popular streaming TV services:

You can read more detailed information on what they uncovered on each individual service via their research findings.

What I found most interesting is that you can expect the ultra-high definition (4K) to at least double your data requirements and sometimes triple them on pretty much every service that offers them.

Typically speaking, you’re paying an additional fee for the privilege of streaming in 4K, so it’s possible that you may be paying for it in more than one way after the data impacts are considered.

Money expert Clark Howard, who is an avid NFL fan and YouTube TV subscriber, said that he opted out of streaming in 4K on the service because it simply didn't do enough to enhance his enjoyment of the content.

This research may make you ponder whether it is worth the upgrade, as well.

How Many Hours Per Month Are You Streaming?

Now that you know how much data is required for streaming in different resolutions and you have some information on how much data each streaming service uses, you’re in a better position to evaluate the impact of streaming on your monthly data allotment.

The final piece of the puzzle is making a reasonable assessment of how many hours per month you spend streaming on your device.

From there, it should be a fairly simple math equation.

Take the estimated monthly hours that you watch each streaming service and multiply it by the average hourly data usage for your desired picture definition found in the Tachus research.

Once you’ve done that for each streaming service you have, you’ll want to add those numbers together. That total should give you an approximate estimate of how much data you’re using on streaming every month.

You’ll want to compare that number to the amount of data you’re paying for each month to ensure that you’re leaving yourself enough data to comfortably do things like browse the internet, video chat with friends or play video games online.

How much data do you use on your streaming services each month? Does it impact what you pay on your internet bill? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the community.

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