Recently, Comcast announced that it intends to start rolling out its controversial data caps nationwide in 2021. This has made a lot of people angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move. Among the many reasons this move sucks, there’s a valid concern that it could kill the nascent field of game streaming.
Put simply, will data caps kill services like Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming that rely on streaming huge amounts of data? Well, maybe—but maybe not.
What’s the Issue With Data Caps?
For those unfamiliar with Comcast’s data caps, here are the basics: For Xfinity customers who aren’t on unlimited plans (more on that below, but it’s a pretty big asterisk), customers will have a soft limit of 1.2 TB of data. Any data used past this limit will incur overage fees to the tune of $10 per 50 GB, up to a limit of an extra $100. During the transition, the company will give users who go over that limit a “courtesy” credit, waiving the overage fees for one month, but they’ll kick in later if customers do it again within the same 12 months.
Comcast says that 95 percent of its customers never get close to hitting the 1.2-TB limit. But while that may be true, it’s hard to take it as a comfort. Even before the pandemic started and forced more people to work and play from home, home data usage has been on the rise. The average US home uses 38 times more data in 2020 than it did in 2010. Meanwhile, Comcast’s been experimenting with data caps for over a decade, and the company has only raised its data cap by about 5 times since 2008.
Unlike utilities like water or power, data consumption is a highly variable resource. When a new technology like game streaming comes along, users can end up chewing through far more data than they did before, sometimes without even realizing it. And so the concern is that charging customers fees for heavy usage can stifle demand for growing technologies.
There’s also very little evidence that data caps improve network performance or reduce congestion. This is perhaps why in recent years, Comcast has leaned more towards describing its overage fees in terms of “fairness,” instead of as a network management feature. But however the company describes it, the result is the same. Using high-bandwidth services costs more money, so customers—especially power users—are more hesitant to do so.
So the question then becomes: Do game streaming services really use that much data?
Game Streaming Uses a Lot of Data, but Not That Much
Streaming video games is, without a doubt, one of the most data-heavy tasks that users can do online right now, so it’s natural to be concerned that doing so would burn through data caps. However, game streaming isn’t quite the data hog it’s been made out to be. While it’s big, it would still take quite a lot of gaming to get through 1.2 TB of data.
Look at a service like Stadia, for example. How much data the service uses depends heavily on the quality that players stream in. According to Google’s support documents, at 1080p, Stadia uses about 12 GB per hour. That would allow for about 100 hours of gameplay every month before hitting a 1.2-TB data cap, or about 23 hours a week.
Google also says 4K gaming would consume up to 20 GB per hour, which would come out to about 14 hours of gaming a week. However, one study from Broadband Now found that 4K gaming used an average of 15.75 GB per hour, considerably less than Google estimates. In other words, it is possible—depending on which games are being played and how much data can be compressed on its way to the player—that real-world usage will be roomier than what Google says it will be.
It also helps to have a frame of reference against other, more common internet tasks. For example, Netflix estimates that its HD streams use about 3 GB of data per hour, and its 4K streams consume about 7 GB per hour. At 4K, viewers can watch about 40 hours of Netflix before they hit a 1.2-TB data cap.
And this is where the rubber really meets the road. For a single adult with no children and a steady job, 40 hours of Netflix or 20 hours of gaming could both be more than enough. For a family of five, it doesn’t really matter which service they use. Two people watching Netflix isn’t that much different from one person streaming a game on Stadia, so whether the household hits a data cap is highly dependent on individual usage patterns.
None of this is to say that game streaming has no chance of hitting data caps. Far from it. But it’s also not so restrictive that anyone who even tries it will be smacked with overage fees for their trouble. Game streaming is still new—while 4K video streaming is considerably more common—and it will be a while before it’s so normal that households are regularly hitting data caps because they played too much Cyberpunk 2077 this month. Whichever month that might be.
Many Will Sign Up for the Unlimited Plan (Which Isn’t Too Bad)
The data cap conversation is also a moot point if households can upgrade to unlimited data plans—which, it turns out, Comcast does allow. In times past, these plans were horrendously overpriced, often as much $50 more per month. The current plan involves the company’s xFi service. Underneath Xfinity’s branding scheme, it’s essentially a modem rental.
With xFi, customers pay $25 a month to rent Comcast’s special xFi modem, and the package includes unlimited data. Alternatively, customers can bring their own hardware and waive the equipment rental fee—a very common way to shave a few bucks off your internet bill—but the penalty is that you then have to pay $30 a month for unlimited data. Other ISPs like AT&T offer similar unlimited plans for more money.
This is a bummer no matter which way you slice it. However many Americans don’t bother researching and buying their own hardware anyway. It’s a waste of cash to rent something that you can just buy outright, but if Comcast is going to charge a fee either way, why not get the modem rental that comes with unlimited data? AT&T’s unlimited fee on top of its service is more avoidable—and thus more likely to make customers feel trapped by their data caps—but as more people consume more data, it’s likely that ISPs will continue offering new and innovative fee structures to let people pay for the privilege.
Comcast’s cunning fee traps aside, the end result is that while many will hit their data caps and be charged for it, likely millions of Americans will take the modem rental deal, sign up for unlimited data, and stream games to their heart’s content—none the wiser about how much more data they use than watching Netflix. Those that don’t succumb to the fees will feel the squeeze of data caps more when streaming games, but not so much more that it will be unfeasible, unless they plan to spend large chunks of time every day on Stadia.
In other words, the situation isn’t ideal, but it’s not as dire as it could be. Or at least, no more dire than dealing with Comcast has always been.