Deciding on the right data plan for your new smartphone or tablet can be a confusing and expensive experience, especially for those who have never owned a high-powered, data-consuming device before.
Most telecommunications companies require consumers to sign up for extended contracts that are difficult to change if you suddenly realize you have chosen a plan that is not suited to your data usage, thus it is important to understand your data needs before signing on the dotted line.
So, just how much data will you use in a month?
The rate at which you chew up your data will depend on what you use your device for. If you are hoping to use your device to stream videos, music, or movies over a 3G connection on your way to work every day and are constantly connected to the internet without using a WiFi connection you will quickly burn through a 2GB or 5GB data plan. On the other hand, if you are just sending the occasional email or checking the news every now and again, you may find you are using less than 200MB per month.
The type of device you have will more than likely impact the rate of data you use too. People with high-powered devices (such as iPad, iPhone, Android-powered handsets and tablets) designed for surfing the web, streaming videos and making VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calls are more likely to eat up low data allowances than those wielding a small-screen without enhanced internet capabilities.
According to US network provider AT&T, 200 megabytes (MB) of data should be enough for you to "send/receive 1,000 emails (no attachments), plus send/receive 150 emails with attachments, plus view 400 Web pages, plus post 50 photos on social media sites, plus watch 20 minutes of streaming video" every month via a 3G connection. With 2GB of data you should be able to "send/receive 10,000 emails (no attachments), plus send/receive 1,500 emails with attachments, plus view 4,000 Web pages, plus post 500 photos to social media sites, plus watch 200 minutes of streaming video" per month.
AT&T believes that around 65 percent of their smartphone customers use less than 200MB of data per month. 98 percent of their smartphone customers use less than 2GB per month. However, those figures will no doubt change in the future as music and video streaming and VoIP technologies are better integrated and as people start to use their mobile phones or tablet PCs as their primary computing devices.
A February 2010 study by market researcher Rysavy Research showed that the average smartphone user uses around 0.3GB per year (25.6MB per month) in 2010. In six years that figure is expected to reach 6.7GB per year (570MB per month).
Consumer polls on technology blogs such as Phonedog.com and DailyTech.com show slightly higher data usage figures. 33 percent of the 2,700 DailyTech readers polled used less than 200MB, 20 percent used between 200MB to 500MB, 12 percent used between 500MB and 1GB of data, 8 percent used between 1GB and 2GB, whilst 26 percent of smartphone users polled used more than 2GB of data per month.
9.1 percent of the 1,044 PhoneDog.com readers polled used less than 50MB, 5.5 percent used less than 100MB, 8.1 percent used less than 200MB, 10.7 percent used less than 500MB, 14.3 percent used less than 1GB, 12.7 percent used less than 2GB, 15.3 percent used less than 5GB and 24.2 percent used in excess of 5GB.
AT&T's figures, reader polls and surveys provide an indication of how much data you might use in a month, but as Clicker.com explained in a June 4 article on AT&T data usage, "it's not that cut and dry, especially when it comes to video. The bandwidth expended to watch videos from YouTube, NBC, Netflix, ABC, and others can vary wildly. The death of unlimited [data plans] may be worst for iPad users - the ABC iPad app alone was downloaded 205,000 times in its first 10 days, with users watching over 650,000 television episodes*."
To help explain how easily people can use up their data allowance when streaming video content on the iPad Clicker.com ran their own video streaming tests. According to their calculations users could watch around 17 hours of YouTube content, 13.65 hours of programming on Netflix, or 10.24 hours of programming on ABC's iPad app before using up their entire bandwidth for the month.
If you have previously owned a smartphone, you should be able to see your approximate monthly data usage by navigating to the "Data Usage" page under your phone's general settings (this will differ depending on the make and model of your phone). If you don't see these figures on your device, your cell phone network provider should be able to provide you with bandwith usage details.
AT&T has also created a data usage calculator that can help you work out your approximate data usage in a month. Users enter in the approximate number of emails, songs, and applications they download plus the number of minutes they stream video, the number of web pages they view and the number of social media updates they make within a day to estimate their monthly data usage. The AT&T data calculator can be found here: http://www.att.com/standalone/data-calculator/index.html
Clickr.com's video streaming tests: http://www.clicker.com/blog/how-much-video-can-you-actually-stream-with-atts-new-data-plans/
Rysavy Research's Mobile Broadband Capacity Constraints And the Need for Optimization report (pdf): http://www.rysavy.com/Articles/2010_02_Rysavy_Mobile_Broadband_Capacity_Constraints.pdf
PhoneDogs's June 2 data usage poll: http://www.phonedog.com/2010/06/02/poll-how-much-data-do-you-use-per-month/
DailyTech's June 2 data usage poll: http://www.dailytech.com/How+much+data+do+you+use+per+month+on+your+smartphone/article18599.htm