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Broadband Data Allowances

According to Ofcom research, British adults spent a record 22.9 hours online every week in 2017—14.8 of those hours at home. We shop online (69% of us, at least), stream video (70% of us), share our lives and connect with friends and strangers on social media (62% of us).

How much data are we gobbling up as we stream our fourth consecutive episode on Netflix, start another run on an online game, or fill up our digital shopping cart? Ofcom says it’s a staggering 190 GB per month for the average British household.

It’s easy to forget about all the megabytes and gigabytes in our favourite TV shows, our music downloads, our constant refreshing of Facebook and news sites. Easy until you exceed your monthly download allowance or consider a new broadband tariff, whether home or mobile, with a new—or unlimited—data allowance.

How much data are you using? How much gigabytes should you budget when considering a new tariff? Is it worth plumping for an unlimited broadband contract? And how unlimited is unlimited, really? When facing down GBs and MBs and ‘fair usage’ policies, it’s easy to get stumped. But with internet service providers levying costly fines on users who exceed their monthly allowances and with more our time online spent on data-hungry activities like video streaming and gaming, it’s important to be informed about your data use before committing to a broadband contract.

If you’re considering a mobile broadband contract instead of or in addition to fixed-line home deal, you’ll want to be especially aware of your data consumption. Mobile contracts all have data limits and exceeding them can be costly.

Home Contracts with Download Allowances

95% of fixed-line broadband contracts on the market are unlimited (although terms and conditions apply, as we’ll see). But two major providers, Sky and BT, still offer data-limited contracts. BT has three tiers of limited home broadband, with usage allowances of 15 GB, 30 GB, and 50 GB per month. Sky’s limited 25 GB plan costs just £10 per month; additionally, a 12 GB plan can be purchased as an add-on to Sky TV for just £5 per month.

Some smaller providers also continue to offer limited broadband tariffs.

Limited fixed-line broadband deals can be a cheaper option for people with minimal home internet needs, especially for elderly customers or single-person households. If you go over your usage allowance, the fines could eat into any savings though. These contracts generally aren’t capped, meaning you won’t be cut off when you exceed your allowance, although your ISP will likely alert you before you do. Usually you’ll be able to continue streaming content and downloading music past your limit but it will be costly.

BT levies fine of £1.80 per extra gigabyte of data used. Consider that streaming a 2-hour HD film eats approximately 4.2 GB of data and you can see how restrictive—and expensive—these limits can be.

Mobile Contracts with Data Allowances

Data allowances are much more common for mobile broadband contracts, reflecting the limited bandwidth that mobile internet providers can offer. There are no unlimited mobile broadband contracts on the market in the UK. The most generous, and costliest, offer 100 GB or 50 GB of data a month, but deals providing between 10 GB and 30 GB a month are more standard. Some offer as little as 500 MB per month. When the average webpage weighing in at 3 MB, you’d have to be very careful to stay within that limit.

Understanding Internet Data

Data on the internet is measures in bytes—specifically in kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB), and gigabytes. There are 1,024 kilobytes in a megabyte and 1,024 megabytes in a gigabyte.

Note that internet speeds are measured in bits rather than bytes—specifically in megabits per second, represented as Mbit/sec or Mbps. 8 bits = 1 byte.

What Can I Do with My Data?

So how much internet usage does each limit translate into? To find out, let’s take a look at (approximately) how data-hungry typical internet activities are.

1 hour of web-browsing = 10 and 25 MB
1 hour of streaming music = 115 MB
1 hour of Skype video calling = 120 – 650 MB.
1 hour of YouTube = 350 MB
1 hour of watching Netflix SD = 1 GB
1 hour of watching Netflix HD = 3 GB
1 hour of online gaming = 43 GB

What about downloads? Here’s how much data you need to download the following:

MP3 = 3.5 MB
Photo = 5 MB
Music album = 80 MB
SD movie = 1 GB
HD movie = 4 GB

How that translate into your allowance? BT has helpfully explained how much internet browsing and streaming you can do with each of its limited packages.

15 GB/month = 1 hour of web browsing a day; 1 hour of online TV a week; downloading 1 HD film and 100 music tracks a month; uploading 100 photos a month.

30 GB/month = 2 hours of web browsing a day; 2 hours of video streaming a week; downloading 2 HD films and 200 music tracks a month; uploading 200 photos a month.

50 GB/month = 4 hours of web browsing a day; 5 hours of video streaming a week; downloading 3 HD films and 400 music tracks a month; uploading 400 photos a month.

How Much Data Are You Currently Using?

Home broadband: if you currently have a download limit

If you currently have a download allowance for home broadband, your internet service provider will likely keep you updated on your internet usage and warn you as you’re approaching your monthly limit. BT, for instance, will send two warning emails: one when you’ve used 60% or 70% (depending on your total allowance) of your allocated data and one when you’ve used either 80% or 90%.

If you want more exact figures or to keep more up to date on your usage, you can check your usage online. For BT, check under ‘View your broadband usage’ in the billing portal, on the desktop website or through the My BT smartphone app. You can then view usage for each billing period and the ratio between data used downloading and uploading. Sky customers on limited tariffs can access a ‘Usage Tool’ online; it should appear under the ‘My Sky’ tab.

Home broadband: if you’re currently on unlimited broadband

If you’re currently on an unlimited broadband package, checking your internet data consumption is a little trickier. But maybe you’re a light or only occasional internet user and want to see if you could save money by switching to a limited home broadband tariff. Or maybe you’re considering switching to a mobile broadband deal and want to see how much data you should plump for. Maybe you’re concerned a virus is hijacking your home WiFi and downloading huge files, slowing your speeds. Maybe you’re worried about your internet being throttled due to the fair usage policies that still apply to unlimited packages. Or maybe you’re simply curious.

If you’re on an unlimited package, your ISP won’t be reaching out to you with updates about your gigabyte consumption. Your bill won’t help because whether you refresh your email once a week or regularly spend 16 hour days gaming, you’ll still be charged the same amount. That’s the allure of unlimited broadband.

Your best recourse is to download an app that monitors your data usage for each device you use to access the internet. Don’t forget any phone or tablets that are piggy-backing on your home WiFi.

Windows 10 has an in-built usage monitoring system. To turn it on, go to Settings > Network Access > WiFi > Advanced Options and toggle on ‘Set as a metered connection.’ If you have a limited tariff, this may be a quicker way to track your usage than your ISP’s website. Be aware that it will only monitor the data gobbled by the internet connection on your computer. Also be conscious of the data by used by the guests to whom you dole out your WiFi password and by devices like TV set top boxes and gaming that don’t have monitoring apps. They could be sucking down more gigabytes than you realise.

Mobile broadband packages:

Your mobile broadband provider will keep you up to date on your usage, usually with SMS or email alerts as you approach your monthly limit. Some dongles even come with warning lights that flash when you’re approaching your usage limit. Your mobile broadband provider’s smartphone app can usually give you up-to-date readings so you can appropriately budget your data, ensuring you can still browse the web with your dongle or MiFi at the end of the month.

Some mobile providers institute or offer data caps, to ensure customers don’t accidentally rack up bills into the thousands of pounds. O2 freezes data for pay-monthly customers when they reach their allowance; users will have to purchase additional data if they want to keep streaming and browsing until the next month begins and their allowance resets. Vodafone offers voluntary capping on its dongle broadband deals. Three charges 1p per MB of data over a consumer’s allowance but has a default £75 per month cap on these overages. Consumers worried about ‘bill shock’ can set the cap lower.

How Can I Use Less Data?

If you’re on a data-restricted home broadband tariff or have mobile broadband, you’ll want to be conscious of your data use. Here are some tips to help you budget data and ensure you aren’t losing precious megabytes.

If you’re looking to use less data

– Clear all malware, spyware viruses off your devices, including mobile devices. They can be using the internet to download files without your knowledge and consent.
– Use an internet browser, like Chrome, which compresses data
– Check which devices are using your internet, including those you don’t suspect like gaming devices, TV box top sets. Turn them off when they’re not in use.
– Take your phone off your WiFi. If you have unlimited mobile data, try to use that on your smartphone rather than your home connection.
– Turn off auto-play on apps like Facebook and Instagram so as you’re scrolling through your feeds every video isn’t playing and draining your data.
– Limit Netflix and YouTube streaming. When you do stream content change your settings so you’re watching in standard definition rather than high definition.
– Stream rather than download video content, unless you’re going to watch it repeatedly.
– Make sure your home WiFi network—or the network created by your MiFI mobile hotspot—is secure and your neighbours aren’t piggy-backing on it.
– Your mobile broadband contract may entitle you to use WiFi for free in some public hotspots. Seek them out and use that connection rather than your dongle.

What’s the Deal with Unlimited Broadband Tariffs?

With so many eyes glued to streaming sites, so many family members twiddling away at tablets and laptops, and so many devices, from gaming consoles to TV boxes, hitching a ride on home broadband, for the average British household an unlimited home broadband deal is a no-brainer.

With unlimited broadband you won’t have to worry about how much that last episode on iPlayer will cost you, how much your game-crazed kids are blowing in megabytes, how many hours a day your daughter spends on social media (except maybe when you should…) No matter how much internet you use your bill will be the same. What might change, if you’re a particularly heavy user, is your internet speed at peak times. More about that…

How Unlimited is Unlimited, Really? On Fair Usage Policies

Even unlimited broadband tariffs are sometimes subject to ‘fair usage’ policies (sometimes known as ‘acceptable usage’ policies) that allow some internet service providers to curb the download speeds of some heavy users at peak times.

Fair usage policies are designed to prevent some users from monopolising a connection and hogging all the bandwidth. All broadband connections will have a contention ratio: that’s the number of costumers sharing the same line. It can be up to 50 and if one of those consumers is continuously peer-to-peer filing sharing or downloading multiple Blu-ray films, particularly at peak times, speeds for the remaining 49 can suffer. You knew that your son’s gaming spree could occasionally jam your connection but did you know the internet browsing habits of your neighbours could similarly slow your page loads? You can’t exactly ground your film buff, download-happy neighbour for data-greed but your provider can intervene to ensure the bandwidth of your connection is equally distributed among users in your area. Sometimes they act to curb the connection speeds of heavy users at peak times, generally between 4pm and midnight on weekdays. Temporarily slowing speeds for certain heavy users to guarantee and stabilise service to others falls under the ‘reasonable’ traffic management policies allowed by EU’s net neutrality framework. ISPs will usually contact you if your data use is particularly excessive.

Are you at risk of drawing your ISP and neighbours’ ire with excessive bandwidth use? Internet suppliers usually don’t publicise the amount of gigabyte-gobbling that raises flags and seem to deal with exorbitant users on a case by case basis. You may be in violation of fair use policies and subject to traffic management if you

– use peer-to-peer networks, including torrenting
– upload large video files to YouTube, Vimeo or other serves
– download large numbers of HD films, software packages, or other large files
– use a virtual private network
– remotely connect to your work computer
– use an internet file back-up system like Dropbox

All these activities are more likely to draw the attention of your ISP if you’re doing them at peak hours, usually in the evening.

Your internet service provider is required to inform you of its fair usage policies and traffic management practices. These details will generally be in the fine print of your contract although they may be vague and if in doubt, you should contact your provider.