Broadband usage guide: how much data do you need?
Summary: How much broadband will you use and what size plan do you need? We look at the types of usage and how much each you might use.
Some online activities require almost no data across your month, while others can use hundreds of times more. It's important to understand your usage habits so that you don't end up paying for a bigger plan than you need.
All of our measurements were taken using an ADSL2+ connection that usually maxes out in the 16Mb/s – 20Mb/s range.
Bits & Bytes
Unfortunately, connection and download speeds are measured using a different unit than the size of the file being transferred. It's as if we used kilometres per hour to measure speed, but only measured the distance traveled in miles.
Bits: a bit is the smaller of the two. It is commonly used to measure connection or download speeds. The symbol for a bit is a lower-case 'b'. This is the same for megabits (Mb), gigabits (Gb) and other larger bit measurements.
Bytes: a byte is 8x larger than a bit. It is commonly used to measure the size of a file. The symbol for a byte is an upper-case 'B'. The same is true for megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), etc.
When downloading a file, the speed is displayed thus: '168.2Kb/s'. In this example you downloading something at 168.2 Kilobits per second.
If you though Kb and KB were the same, you would notice that the size of the file and the speed of the download don’t add up. A common reaction to this is to get confused and ignore the measurements entirely.
Instead of doing this, just ignore the speed figure when it comes to judging how much data you are using. The important information is the size of the file being downloaded. This is what will affect your cap.
Uploading counts as usage
Everyone knows what a
download is and that it uses up your cap. Uploading - the reverse of downloading - does it as well.
Uploading is the information being sent
out of your computer and off in to the never-ending ether of the internet.
Uploading used to be unmetered by ISPs, which means that it didn't count
towards your usage, but that is no longer common.
You will almost always be uploading while doing anything online. This is usually ok. Most uploading is done at a significantly smaller rate than downloads. However, if you use online cloud storage like DropBox or iCloud, or if you're a fan of file-swapping, then it can be an important factor. Be just as mindful of your uploads as your downloads.
YouTube & video streaming
A common misconception about video streaming is that it doesn’t use up as much data as downloading the same movie and storing it on your hard drive. In fact, it uses the exact same amount of data to stream as to download and keep the file.
In fact, you often end up using more. Some downloaded files come in zipped form, which is a compressed version of the file. It also creates a situation where you must re-buffer the video every time you reload a webpage, forcing you to use the data again.
We logged how much data YouTube uses for a 5 minutes of video, using the more common resolutions.
Here is a table of the speed at which each video downloaded, as well as the amount uploaded per second and the final amount of data that had been downloaded.
Bits per second (down)
Bits per second (up)
Data used in 5 minutes
720p is the lowest form of of 'HD' and is a popular resolution. For every 5 minutes of 720p video footage on YouTube you're using up around 37.5MB of data.
The average YouTube viewer watches
6 hours of video per month. At 720p that would come to around 2.7GB of usage. This is a drop in the ocean for a big 100GB cap, but something smaller like a wireless 3G or 4G plan it can be devastating.
It also goes beyond YouTube. Videos are embedded in everything from online newspapers to review sites and even Facebook. It all adds up, so be mindful if you have a limited cap when it comes to video content.
Facebook & social media
Social media is totally fine if you're on a decent-sized cap of 10GB or up, but on those smaller ones it can use a surprising amount.
During the course of casual Facebook browsing – chatting, browsing photos, status checking and clicking a few links – only slightly over 1MB of data was consumed per minute.
Going to the statistics, the average Facebook user spends 8 hours per month online. At 1MB per minute that amounts to around half a GB, or 500MB. Once again this is nothing to a landline connection, but for those cheaper mobile phone plans it's a big number.
Moreover, if you have kids it adds up. Two teenagers would be using a good 1GB per month just with Facebook, assuming that they were only average users.
Internet TV (IPTV)
IPTV is like PayTV, aka Cable TV, but is delivered via the internet. It does not always incur a subscription cost, but it often does.
Examples of PayTV in Australia are Foxtel Play, ABC iView, Fetch TV and the Telstra T-Box service. International examples would be Hulu and Netflix.
Some IPTV is unmetered, meaning the downloads do not count towards your monthly cap and that you can watch as much as you like without worry.
Typically you find unmetered content when an ISP owns the IPTV service. A good example is Foxtel on the Telstra T-Box.
ABC iView, a free IPTV service, uses a full
300MB per hour of SD (standard definition) viewing. This is ok if your ISP offers it unmetered, as some do. If not then it can be responsible for a lot of data.
Foxtel Play, once called Foxtel over Xbox 360, can use up to
1.2GB per hour when watching HD content.
Considering that, according to a
2012 Nielsen report, the average Australian watches 99 hours of TV per month. At 1.2GB per hour that comes to almost 120GB, which is well over the standard 100GB ADSL2+ cap.
"Web surfing" covers a lot of content. Assuming that you don't visit Facebook and don't intentionally stream any video, you'll use around 2.5MB per minute when browsing on a laptop or desktop. That's about 2.5x as much as Facebook uses.
At 2.5MB per minute you'll hit 1GB in under 8 hours.
The average Australian spends around 48 hours browsing the web per month. Assuming no video streaming or Facebook, that would add up to about 7GB per month per person in your household.
Skype and VoIP
Skype and other VoIP clients have changed the way we make international voice and video calls. It's also very easy on your data cap.
A standard voice call on Skype only uses about 360KB per minute. You would need about 48 hours of straight voice calls per month to approach just 1GB.
Video calls use more and it varies depending on the quality of the image being sent. It's very close to YouTube and other video streaming services in this respect, around 40MB every 5 minutes, or half a GB per hour.
Gaming is another variable set of data. Depending on what game you are playing your usage will change, but it's all still relatively low. If your parents start blaming your gaming for going over the cap, they're probably looking in the wrong direction.
First person shooter (FPS) titles tend to use around 20-25KB/s (Kilobytes, not Kilobits), putting them at around the 1.5MB per minute mark. That puts gaming between Facebook and regular internet browsing.
It can be much less. StarCraft II, a popular strategy game, uses around 1.5KB/s average in-game. It would take almost 200 hours of in-game play to approach 1GB.
It can also be much more. Some modern games can reportedly use upwards of 200MB per hour. We've not been able to recreate this ourselves, but that doesn't mean it's not something to look out for.
Even with titles that use smaller amounts of data, gaming can still be detrimental for three reasons:
Gamers tend to spend many hours actively gaming. This can add up to a decent sum of data.
These days most games are bought online and downloaded. Games are very large, much larger than movies. One big-title game alone can put a dent in even a large download cap.
Online games require updates and patches. These are extra downloads on top of the original game that fix bugs or improve gameplay. These can be anywhere from a few MB to 8GB or more. They tend to be on the smaller side, but when you have multiple games that require updates it can add up.
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