Choosing the right data plan
Unlike minutes and text messages, which are relatively easy to quantify, understanding data usage isn't so simple. How many "megabytes" does it take to download a photo anyway?
Data from CTIA-The Wireless Association suggests that the average smartphone user consumes roughly 800 MB of data per month—that's much less than what's included in many wireless plans. This guide explains how data usage is measured, breaks down plans currently being offered by wireless companies, and helps consumers choose the best plan for them.
What's a megabyte (MB)?
A megabyte is a unit for measuring data. Whenever you send an e-mail, download a photo, or view a Web page, your phone is sending or receiving data. When it comes to cell phones, 1 MB of data is equal to roughly one of the tasks below:
• Sending or receiving 50 e-mails (without attachments)
• Streaming 2 minutes of music
• Viewing 1 web page
• Posting 3 photos to your Facebook page
• Watching 30 seconds of video on YouTube (Sites like Netflix stream higher quality video, meaning you'll use even more data)
What's a gigabyte (GB)?
One gigabyte, which is about 1,000 megabytes, roughly equals one of the tasks below:
• Sending or receiving 50,000 e-mails (without attachments)
• Streaming 33 hours of music
• Viewing 1,000 web pages
• Posting 2,800 photos to your Facebook page
• Watching more than 8 hours of video on YouTube (Higher quality video, like Netflix, uses even more data)
According to CTIA data, consumers with smartphones—such as an iPhone, Android, or Blackberry—use an average of about 800 MB of data per month. That's far less than the standard 2 GB of data recommended by cellphone companies. And 800 MB is no small amount. In fact, a quick analysis shows it's more than enough data to send or receive 1,000 e-mails (250 with photo attachments), view 200 Web pages, post 50 photos on social media, download 10 apps, songs or games, stream 10 hours of music, and watch 60 minutes of YouTube videos.
No matter what carrier you're with, be sure to check with it frequently, at least during the first few months of your contract, to monitor your data usage. You may be able to access your data usage info by texting your provider, logging into your online account, or downloading a cellphone app.
How do I pick the right data plan?
Below is a sampling of typical data plans currently available from wireless carriers.
Mobile Share data plans
offer unlimited voice and text:
•Smart devices cost $25/month for 300 MB- 6 GB plans and $15/month for 6 GB-50 GB plans
•Basic devices cost $20/month for 300 MB- 6 GB plans and $15/month for 6 GB- 50 GB plans
Data can be shared across multiple devices at these additional rates:
• $25 a month for 1 GB ($20 per 500 MB after)
• $40 a month for 4 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $80 a month for 6 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $100 a month for 10 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $375 a month for 50 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
offer unlimited talk and text:
• $60 a month for 1 GB ($15 per 500 MB after)
• $75 a month for 2 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
More Everything plans
$40 a month per smartphone ($30 per basic phone) with unlimited talk and text.
Data can be shared across multiple devices at these additional rates:
• $15 a month for 250 MB ($15 per 200 MB after)
• $40 a month for 1 GB($15 per 1 GB after)
• $50 a month for 2 GB($15 per 1 GB after)
• $70 a month for 4 GB($15 per 1 GB after)
• $80 a month for 6 GB($15 per 1 GB after)
• $90 a month for 8 GB($15 per 1 GB after)
• $100 a month for 10 GB($15 per 1 GB after)
• $375 a month for 50 GB($15 per 1 GB after)
offer unlimited talk, text, and data
Unlimited, My Way:
$50 a month for first phone; $40 a month for second; $30 a month for third phone; $20 a month for phones 4-10
My All In:
$110 for unlimited talk, text, and data
Unlimited talk, text, and 1 GB of data for up to 10 people:
• $55 for first phone; $50 for second, etc.; $25 each for lines 7-10
•Note: Additional data can be purchased for $10 per line per month, or unlimited data for $20 per line per month
All T-Mobile plans offer unlimited voice and text:
Simple Starter individual plan:
$50 a month for up to 500 MB
Simple Choice individual plan:
•$50 a month for 1 GB
•$60 a month for 3 GB
•$70 a month for 5 GB
•$80 a month for unlimited data
Simple Choice family plans:
In addition to the above rates, family plans cost $30 for the second line and $10 for subsequent lines.
T-Mobile has no data overage charges, but it does slow speeds after 1 GB. Two GB of high-speed data can be added to any line for $10 a month. Unlimited data can be added to a line for $30 a month.
Tethering allows you to connect your smartphone to your desktop, laptop, or other device, acting as a modem and allowing the device to access the Internet through your smartphone's connection. If you tether, be sure to monitor your data usage closely, as services like Netflix can quickly send you over your plan's data limit.
CUB created this chart as a helpful guide to define what your monthly usage is.
Web page views
Social media photo posts
App/ game/ songs
2 hrs HD
20 hrs HD
Data usage varies. The above figures are based on estimates from AT&T Wireless.
What can I do to lower my data usage?
Set your smartphone to use Wi-Fi whenever it’s available. That includes your home—if you pay for Wi-Fi—and coffee shops and other public places that offer free Wi-Fi. This cuts down on your data usage and could allow you to downsize to a cheaper plan.
Turn off apps.
Beware of data-devouring apps or features—like Facebook, Twitter and weather updates—that may continue to run in the background long after you need them. Make sure they’re turned off when you’re not using them. Free apps, like Onavo, pinpoint which applications are using the most data, and help you reduce your usage.
Turn off GPS.
Apps that run in the background may access your GPS to track your location, generate advertisements, and download maps. That eats up data. (One drawback to turning off GPS: That means your phone will be more difficult to track down if it’s lost or stolen)
Avoid ad-supported games
While you play your “free” game, every banner or page ad that appears on the screen chips away at your data.
Use your cache.
Don’t clear the cache of your Web browser. If you do, that means you’ll have to redownload images and other media files the next time you visit your favorite websites.
Download a light or text-only Internet browser.
Browsers like Opera Mini or TextOnly can reduce your data usage when you surf the web.
Be wise on trips.
Use Wi-Fi to predownload maps before you leave, rather than using your phone’s data connection on the go. Google Maps allows you to save and store maps for offline use.
View mobile pages.
Such webpages generally have fewer elements to load than full Web pages, and are optimized for viewing on smaller screens. Note: Mobile pages have an “m.” at the beginning instead of a “www.”
What's the alternative?
Prepaid wireless companies, like Boost Mobile, Cricket, and Straight Talk, offer unlimited talk, text and data plans starting at around $45 per month with no contract. While smart phones are available, you won't have your pick of the very latest models. For more information, read CUB's prepaid cellphone fact sheet
CUB is a nonprofit, statewide utility watchdog organization that was created by
the Illinois Legislature. If you have a question or complaint about a utility,
call CUB at 1-800-669-5556