In a lot of ways, game streaming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud could be great solutions for casual gamers. Instead of needing to buy new consoles or upgrade their computers every few years, people can run games on servers in the cloud hosted by Google or Microsoft and play them on practically any modern gadget with a screen: phone, TV, laptop, tablet, etc. And while Microsoft hasn’t revealed a ton of data about xCloud’s pricing structure, Google has announced that Stadia will be available as both a $10 subscription service with access to a curated library of games, or completely free for those who’d rather purchase games individually.
But just because Microsoft and Google have figured out a way to take hardware considerations out of the equation, doesn’t mean there aren’t other limitations, namely, your internet connection. Not only will your game streaming quality depend on the speed of your data connection, but if you game a lot, depending on your ISP (internet service provider), you could run into data caps too.
At Stadia’s highest graphics setting, gaming streaming at 4K and 60 fps will suck up 1TB of data in about 65 hours. That works out to just over 15 hours of gaming per week, which if you’re a frequent gamer, isn’t really that hard to do. If you step down to 1080p at 60 fps, you’ll get more out of your data, as it will take around 115 hours to hit that same 1TB.
This puts a lot of pressure on your ISP to deliver a connection that makes game streaming worthwhile. Which is a bit of a worry as last year, Microsoft released a report claiming that more than 160 million Americans (about half the country) don’t have access to broadband internet, which is defined as internet with speeds of at least 25 Mbps. Previously, the number of U.S. residents without access to broadband internet was thought to be closer to 25 million.
Similar numbers from Akamai also highlight this concern, as its most recent report on the speed of U.S. broadband calculates the nationwide internet speeds as just shy of 19 Mbps. However, Akamai’s report may be somewhat outdated as its numbers stem back to 2017. Currently, numbers from Ookla’s Speedtest.net claims that the average speed of fixed broadband in the U.S. is actually a whopping 120.3 Mbps, which suggests that if you do have actual access to broadband internet (which is a seperate problem), it should be able to handle game streaming services.
Still, with the success of game streaming so reliant on your ISP, we decided to reach out to the five largest ISPs in the U.S. to see what they have to say about the arrival of game streaming services. To start, the good news is that every provider has at least one service option that should be able to hit the 35 Mbps limit for Stadia’s 4K settings (again this is location dependent). However, the rules for home broadband data caps aren’t the same across every provider, so here’s what you need to know.
When it comes to the U.S.’ biggest broadband provider, it’s tricky. That’s because while Xfinity subscribers in the south, west, and mid-west regions are capped at 1TB per month, those in the northeast from Maine down to Delaware and east to Ohio actually have unlimited broadband data.
If you’re on Xfinity in one of the capped regions and you plan to stream your best bet may be to pay an additional $50 a month to have the 1TB limit removed. Otherwise, you could be subject to overage fees. Xfinity won’t charge you for the first two consecutive months you go over. Yet after that, you’ll be paying $10 for each 50GB chunk over 1TB—up to an additional $200 a month more.
Whew, that’s complicated!
When I reached out to a Comcast representative to find out more, I was told over the phone that only a very small percentage of users (in the low single digits) get anywhere near that 1TB cap. However, with the rise of game streaming sure to affect average data usage, the Comcast representative also noted that Comcast is always evaluating its data caps and is open to adjusting those limits as needed.
While we couldn’t reach a representative from Charter Spectrum for an official statement, as part of the stipulations for Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable in 2016, Charter Spectrum is not allowed to institute data caps or sell plans with overage fees until 2023. Simple.
AT&T typically caps data at 1TB a month and requires you pay an extra $30 a month to remove the cap. Though as noted in an emailed statement to Gizmodo it does have at least one plan that allows for unlimited data without any additional fees. (The bolded emphasis is ours.)
“AT&T broadband customers with Internet 1000 already receive unlimited data and customers on other plans receive a 1TB monthly data allowance. Those on lower speed plans always have the option to add unlimited data for $30 a month or get this benefit included when they sign up for both AT&T broadband and a premium video service. This unlimited allowance applies toward any type of data streaming, including online gaming.”
Verizon’s statement regarding game streaming is also relatively straightforward as its fiber-optic network does not have data caps of any sort. Though, in a statement to Gizmodo, the company still managed to squeeze in a reference to the potential of game streaming on its mobile 5G network in addition to home broadband.
“The Verizon Fios fiber network is a great solution for gamers and cloud-based gaming services. Our all-fiber network, with no data caps, inherently provides low latency and symmetrical internet download and upload speeds to our customers, critical capabilities to our gaming community. In addition, our new 5G network delivers lower latency and faster speeds to power gaming on-the-go.”
As for the part about using 5G to game on the go, that’s going to be somewhat difficult, especially in 2019 as Verizon’s 5G wireless network is currently limited to just to two cities: Chicago and Minneapolis, though Verizon has promised to expand its 5G coverage to more cities by the end of the year.
It should be noted that in PC Mag’s latest wireless network report, Verizon’s 4G network was found to have an average mobile broadband speed of 59.4 Mbps, which should be fast enough to let you use game streaming services on your phone. Though the same could be said of all the major carriers, as even the carrier with lowest average nationwide data speeds (T-Mobile) is still theoretically more than fast enough to support 4K game streaming with an average wireless speed of 52.5 Mbps. The bigger issue when it comes to streaming games to your phone wirelessly are data caps, because even though many of the top-tier cell plans claim you have unlimited data, that’s not actually true, and in reality, users are typically limited to 25 to 55 GB of data per month before your speeds get throttled. Verizon will need to revisit that policy if it wants users steaming games over 5G.
Finally, there’s Cox, which has similar limitations to Comcast, with home broadband data capped at 1TB a month, with additional data available for $10 in 50GB increments. In a statement made to Gizmodo, Cox says:
“Cox supports a multitude of streaming apps with our broadband service and cloud-based apps are no different. With gigabit speeds available to more than 90% of our customers (and all households by the end of this year), we offer the experience all our customers need. Additionally, Cox includes a generous 1 Terabyte per month in all our plans. While everyone is getting more from their internet connection, more than 95 percent of Cox High Speed Internet customers do not come close to exceeding the amount of data included in their plan.”
All this means is that even for gamer with access to fast broadband internet, it’s still important to consider how much data game streaming services could suck up, especially since the numbers above don’t factor in any other data use like streaming videos, downloading apps, or anything else you’re doing online.
Unfortunately, there’s no super simple formula for figuring what might be the best or most cost-effective plan for your home because data speeds and caps can vary greatly depending on your location, neighborhood, and specific ISP.
So as exciting as game streaming services are, the realities of the current state of broadband access might put a damper on things. Though if platforms like Stadia and xCloud do catch on, hopefully, they might encourage internet providers to raise their data caps or maybe even get rid of them entirely. Wouldn’t that be nice?
[Correction 12:20 PM] We initially reported that Comcast said the number of users who exceed or use close to 1TB of data usage per month was less than five percent. Comcast claims via email the actual number is “a very small percentage (low single digits).” We have since adjusted the story to reflect the data, and we regret the error.