Mobile data usage – how much is enough?

Man looking suspiciously at phoneDownloaded an HD movie lately? What about streaming music from Spotify? Perhaps, like many of us, you now download all your games and music rather than buying the physical copies. Home broadband is so widespread, affordable and fast we’re accustomed to grabbing as much as want without worrying about the quantity. Unlimited services are common and inexpensive, and even if you have a cap it’s likely to be so high that most people will never hit the monthly limit.

But when it comes to mobile broadband it’s a very different situation.

The cheapest mobile broadband packages offer just 1GB of data usage, while the maximum you can currently get on a contract deal is 15GB. But how much data does the average user require, and what can you do within the limit? Figuring this out can be challenge if you’re new to mobile data services, and it can be an expensive period of trial and error as you learn exactly how your mobile internet package will cope with a heavy diet of YouTube and online games.

Mobile broadband data: what do you need? 

How much data you’ll need for your mobile broadband service will come down to what you’ll be doing with the connection.

Web browsing and emailing would be considered light usage. Web sites generally do not consume much data, even those heavy with Flash and other fancy effects. Email too is usually lightweight, particularly if you access your email via the web. It can be more demanding if you use a desktop client such as Outlook or Thunderbird, but even then only emails with large attachments will have any significant impact.

If the majority of your online activities are centred around the web and email, and you don’t use it for more than a couple of hours per day, a basic 1 or 2GB mobile broadband package may be sufficient.

However, things become more complex when you factor in streaming video and audio. Services such as YouTube and iPlayer use a lot more bandwidth – you’d be lucky to get four hours of streaming cute cat videos off YouTube with a 1GB allowance.

If you plan on making use of any kind of streaming media – video or audio – you will need to budget for a larger data limit. If you watch embedded videos while browsing, like those shared by friends on Facebook for example, then consider upping your mobile broadband data package to around 5GB. This will give you more breathing room, and allow you to use it for a few hours of iPlayer or Spotify streaming on occasion.

As a rough guideline, YouTube videos use between 100 – 250MB per hour, while streaming an hour of audio can be anywhere from 60 – 200MB. But an hour of web browsing might not be more than 25MB, giving a generous 40 hours of web browsing per gigabyte.

To help illustrate the data requirements of different activities we’ve put together this handy infographic:

Mobile broadband usage calculator – An infographic by the team at Mobile Broadband Usage Calculator by BroadbandGenie

Another thing to consider is file downloads. The exact amount of data consumed will be dictated by the size of the files so this is easy to manage, but it means you’ll want to try to stick to small files rather than multi-gigabyte monsters.

This is particularly problematic for gamers who might need large patches or updates, though. If you do think you’ll be needing to grab large files on a regular basis in addition to everything else, then look for packages up to 15GB in size. Even then it will need to be carefully monitored.

Background activities and uploads

File downloads and streaming are simple to control – if you’re worried just don’t play that video, or only download large files using a fixed line connection.

But there are some things that many mobile broadband users overlook, and as a result find themselves running out of data much sooner than expected.

Many applications, as well as your computer’s operating system, will download in the background without alerting you first. Often these are important bits like critical patches or new definitions for anti-virus software, but as it occurs without warning you won’t find out until it’s too late.

To avoid this check the settings for your applications, particularly those left running all the time. Normally there will be an option to tell the software to download patches only when you give permission.

Another factor is uploading. Anything you send to the internet is treated by the network as data use same as a download (just, you know, in reverse), so don’t go wild uploading big files. One major culprit is photo uploads. A single image sent to Facebook might only be 1 or 2MB but if you’re doing that many times over the month it’ll take a big chunk out of your account. You can find the full guide to mobile broadband data usage over at Broadband Genie.

Author Bio: Matt Powell contributes this article on behalf of Broadband Genie, the mobile broadband consumer advice website.

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  1. Interesting article this. I am always thinking of data and how much I may well be using. I tether devices to my phone and run them in this way and that can use more data again. I am with the Three one Plan and this claims all you can eat.
    Which if you investigate amounts to 1000Gb per month. Which I would suggest is more then anyone at this stage needs. (see
    Again the more we use the cloud and have all our info out there somewhere then the more data we will be consuming.
    I am not at this stage streaming a lot of stuff, but can see this coming in the very near future for me and again this will up the anti on what I use.
    Obviously like other I tend to tag onto Wi-Fi where I can, but security is then a consideration.

    How our use of the net has changed over a very short period of time. I remember when emails were the thing and now we chat over Facebook and Twitter.

    Ah well onwards and upwards.


  2. Very timely article for me. I became a victim of this yesterday.

    Our fibre connection went down and we have a very nifty router that allows the connection of a usb dongle to share that connection over the same network.

    “Brilliant!” I thought, we can plug that in and carry on as normal. With two laptops, two smartphones and a multimedia pc downloading podcasts and iplayer content the paltry daily allowance that I put on there was used up extremely quickly. I’m just glad we weren’t watching netflix on the Wii!

    Very clever idea, but not very useful. Or at least very expensive.

    The dongle is just plugged into one laptop now and we take it in turns. Hopefully not too long before I get my fibre back. It’s amazing how much you get used to having a solid always-on connection.

  3. We became keenly aware of mobile data limits when on holiday recently. My wife has 500Mb on her contract and, since we were away from WiFI for a week, used most of that up. I guess that’s the downside of smartphones (she has an Android handset) – they do chew through a lot of data.

    My iPhone’s the same, but I’m on Three’s ‘all you can eat’ data package, like you Ian. So we actually ended up with me turning on the personal hotspot, and my wife would connect to the Internet via WiFI through my iPhone. It’s a bit of a faff, but it seemed to work.

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