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Broadband data limits: How much data do I need?

A guide to internet usage, breaking down the jargon and explaining what is meant by megabits, megabytes, gigabits and gigabytes.

Last updated: 10 November 2020

Broadband data limits: How much data do I need?
Whenever your computer or device uses the internet it sends and receives data. This can be in the form of a web page, email, photographs, music, or even a video. This also applies to the apps you use on your phone, such as Google Maps, WhatsApp, or Uber.

It can be hard to get your head around how much data you’re actually using. Broadband providers won’t usually supply you with an itemised list of your data usage so it can be quite tricky to figure out where your data is being ‘spent’.

In this guide we’ll be helping you better understand data in general, how it’s measured, and how to figure out how much you’re using so you don’t find yourself with a nasty surprise down the line.

How is data measured?

The most common measurements of data are kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB), and gigabytes (GB). There are 1024KB in 1MB, and 1024MB in 1GB.

How much data can I use?

This all depends on the particular internet package you have. You will sometimes be given set data ‘allowances’ per month, allowing you to use a certain amount of data. However, there are also many broadband deals and mobile packages that are ‘unlimited’ and have no usage limits.

What happens if I exceed my monthly data usage limit?

A few things could happen depending on your provider and your package. Some providers will shut off your data connection altogether until you pay to temporarily extend your data allowance.

Other providers will just slow down your internet connection speed so that you can only access very basic internet services.

Another possibility is that your service will continue as normal but you’ll have extra fees tacked on to your next bill for each megabyte or gigabyte of data you use over the agreed limit.

You really need to look at the terms and conditions of your package to be sure of how exceeding your monthly data limit will be handled by your service provider.

How much data do I need?

This is the key question in many ways. It can be hard to pinpoint just how much data any one person requires. One thing is for sure: it depends on the individual and their internet usage needs. If you only use your internet for a bit of light email and for hailing an Uber you won't need as much data as someone binging on HD episodes of the latest Netflix series or streaming all their music on Spotify.

To get a better idea of your personal needs, here’s a list of some typical internet activities and how much data they use:

  • 5MB - 1 standard photo
  • 80MB - 10 songs
  • 430MB - 1 hour of Youtube streaming
  • 2GB - 2 hrs standard definition movie
  • 4GB - 2 hours high definition movie

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How much data does streaming audio use?

High-quality audio has become a focal point for streaming services. But what if you are worried about your data usage?

Streaming services often offer 'Low' 'Normal' and 'High' quality streaming, and some "Very high" quality too. On Spotify, each of these is the following:
  • Low quality - 24kbps or 10.8MB per hour
  • Normal quality - 96kbps or 43.2MB per hour 
  • High quality - 160kbps or 72MB per hour
  • Very high quality - 320kbps or 144MB per hour

How much data does streaming video use?

Streaming video uses a lot more data than audio does. But video streaming services will often provide low data usage options for users who are limited by their internet plan though.

Most video streaming services are smart enough to adjust the bitrate of their video streams automatically on the fly; this is to ensure that when watching your favourite TV show or movie you don't get rudely interrupted by the buffering screen which we all dislike. But this auto-adjusting is linked to the speed of your internet, and not how much data you have available to use. So if you are limited in terms of the amount of data you have available each month it is worth manually adjusting the quality of your stream in the settings.

For example, Netflix offers 4 video quality settings you can pick from:
  • Auto - This will adjust video quality automatically based on your internet speed.
  • Low quality - up to 0.3GB per hour
  • Medium quality - up to 0.7GB per hour
  • High Quality - Up to 3GB per hour for HD video, 7GB per hour for 4K or UHD video streaming

How can I reduce my data usage?

If you find that you’re using too much data there are a few things you can do to bring your usage down.

First and foremost, get conscious of what you’re doing on your computer or your phone. It’s so easy to log onto Youtube and start watching something without really thinking about how it will affect your data allowance. Get vigilant and don’t use data unnecessarily.

Secondly, use Wi-Fi on your phone as much as possible. Mobile broadband data is much more expensive and has much lower usage limits, so offload more data-intensive tasks to Wi-Fi connections.

Finally, deactivate anything on your phone that uses data automatically. This can include email push notifications, background app refreshing or automatic updates for apps.
Fergus Cole

Author: Fergus Cole

Fergus is a journalist specialising in the personal finance, energy and broadband sectors. He also has a passion for travel and adventure so tries to make the most of this in any spare time he gets.

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