Mobile data usage: the basics
By now almost everyone knows that each time they download a movie or open an email on their phone over 3G or 4G, they’re eating into their monthly mobile data allowance.
But most smartphone users are a lot less certain when it comes to how much data they’re really using. For that reason, too many of us are overpaying for data that goes unused at the end of each month.
Nowhere is that more evident than in research from Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey 2016, which found that UK consumers use on average less than half of their data allowance every month.
In this guide we take a look at how you can easily work out how much data you really need and make sure you're on the right contract with the right allowances.
We'll also look at some of the terminology around data allowances, so you won't be fazed by some of the specialist vocabulary favoured by mobile phone networks.
How is data measured? What do Kb, MB and GB stand for?
Before we get into working out how much data you need, we should probably get you up to speed with the terminology for measuring units of data, which in turn is by networks to tell you how much data you get with a contract.
This stands for kilobyte and just over 1000Kb make up one Mb.
This stands for megabyte and is made up of approximately 1000 bytes.
This stands for a Gigabyte. About 1000 megabytes makes up one GB.
The amount of data you get with your contract can range hugely. Some offer as little as 500Mb per month and start from under £10 per month.
At the other end of the scale, there are costlier 'unlimited data' plans that let you use as much data as you like.
Got that? Good news. Let's move on to quick and easy ways to assess your data usage.
How can I check how much data I'm using right now?
Checking exactly how much data you're getting through is easy. All you need to do is log-in to your account on your computer by visiting your network's website.
Or if you're with one of the larger networks, you can log-in to your network's customer-account app on your phone.
Once you're logged-in, you'll be able to see how much data you've used so far this month, as well as in previous months.
If you're often left with lots of unused data, you’re probably paying for a data allowance that's too generous for your needs.
Accessing your account on your computer is just a case of visiting your network's website and logging-in. Then simply navigate to the section of the app that covers your data allowance.
However, using an app to check your data usage isn't quite so simple. That's because networks don't usually pre-install their customer-account apps on phones at the point of purchase, so you may need to download the app first.
Handily, here are links from major network where you can get their customer-account apps:
I think I need more data. How do I work out how much?
Calculating exactly how much data you'll need isn't easy. But you can get a very good idea if you know how much data you use up every time you check your emails and browse web pages or download a movie and stream a song.
In case you're not familiar with data first thing you need to
Below you'll find a list of common things you'll use the mobile internet for and how much data they'll use up.
- 1 hour of web browsing (50 pages): 50Mb
- Checking your email daily: 150Mb per month
- Daily instant messaging (WhatsApp, Facebook messenger etc): 250Mb per day
- Music streaming: 100Mb per hour
- Adding 10 images to cloud services such as Apple iCloud or Google photos: 100Mb per month
- Watching a video (streaming): 1Gb per hour
With this information and an honest assessment of how you use your phone (for instance, how often do you stream music?), you should be able to make a pretty good guess at how much data you'll get through.
What constitutes a heavy data user? Or a light one?
A less precise but quicker way to get an idea what sort of data allowance you need is to check which of these user profiles you match.
Low data user - 'I'll use it every so often, to keep up with friends and interesting news'
You like to look at web pages, or check your email.
You check your Facebook or Twitter online reasonably often.
You don't play a lot of games on your phone or download music directly on the phone.
You may occasionally use your mobile for chatting online or watch the odd video clip.
You're unlikely to use your internet for more than an hour a day.
Sound like you? If so, you're low data user and you’ll find that a data allowance of 1GB will cover you.
Medium data user- 'I need it for my email, social media and for entertainment’
You download email daily to your phone, via an on-board or downloadable email client such as Gmail.
You spend quite a bit of time browsing the internet, and download a few games or applications a month.
You like to watch video on online streaming sites such as YouTube every so often and perhaps download a few songs now and then too.
Sound familiar? That means you're classified as a medium data user. You'll require a data allowance of 3GB per month at least.
Heavy data user -'I rely on my phone for both entertainment and work'
You send and receive quite a few emails daily, often with attachments.
You watch videos online several times a week and are likely to download a lot of applications and games as well as music for your phone.
You also make extensive use of music streaming services, such as Spotify or Apple Music.
You rely on your mobile internet for work as well as communication with friends and family and need to use your phone for internet access several hours daily.
Does that match your usage habits? Yes? That means you're classified as heavy use. You’ll need a monthly data allowance of 5GB or more.
How much does it cost if you go over your mobile phone internet limit?
If you're regularly exceeding your monthly data limit right now, you're more than likely paying out for data add-ons.
As you'll probably realise, the data you buy outside your contract generally works out more expensive than the price you pay for data with your contract.
So if you are paying out for add-ons, it's a very good idea to upgrade to contract with a higher data usage allowance.
How much it's likely to cost you for going over your allotted mobile phone internet limit varies, depending on which tariff you have chosen and which network you are with.
However, in some cases it gets very expensive when you exceed your mobile data limit. So it’s important to find a tariff that matches your needs.
Some mobile networks can charge £5 for an extra 500Mb of internet allowance; whilst others can charge £2-£3 per Mb you go over.
What is a fair use policy?
Some mobile networks simply limit your internet usage rather than charge extra when you exceed the data you've paid for. This is called a 'fair use' policy.
So what does that mean for you? It means that you may not incur an extra charge when you use up your monthly allowance, but you may be penalised if you go over by what the network decides is 'fair'- often around 500MB.
But that's not all. Some networks that favour fair usage policies will reduce your internet speed until your monthly allowance renews, so you will not be able to stream long videos or download large applications.
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