These days we're increasingly likely to have a wide array of devices in our homes all hooked up to the internet. Between laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones, games consoles, and smart fridges, there's an awful lot of data being sent and received from a typical home broadband connection
But this connected lifestyle places increasing demands on our broadband, which can be troublesome if your service has a limited monthly usage cap.
If you’re considering a broadband package with a data cap, how do you know how much data you need for your home broadband to function effectively?
In this guide, we're going to take a closer look at home broadband data usage and help figure out exactly what kind of broadband service is best for your needs.
Bits and bytes - what’s the difference?
Broadband speed is measured in bits per second (Kbps, Mbps, Gbps, etc). This number tells us how quickly data can be transferred.
But when talking about data usage we measure in bytes (KB, MB, GB, etc - upper case is used to differentiate them from bits). In the context of broadband, bytes are used to refer to data storage capacity (like the size of your computer hard drive) or file sizes (like the size of a file you are downloading).
So if you’re comparing broadband speed, you’re working in bits per second, but when looking at data usage limits you’ll be looking at figures measured in bytes (which for home broadband data caps will always be gigabytes, only mobile broadband packages will have data limits under a gigabyte).
For further help, we have a whole guide dedicated to the difference between bits and bytes which goes into a lot more detail.
How much internet data do you need?
This is the big question, but it can be tricky to answer as requirements will change depending on various factors.
One way to do this is to work out how much you might use in a typical month by adding up usage. We've listed the typical data usage of common activities below, though bear in mind that these are very rough estimates.
- 1 hour of instant messaging: 0.25-1MB
- 100 web pages: 300MB
- Download 100 emails: 1-10MB
- 1 hour Skype call: 225MB
- 1 hour Skype video call: 350MB
- Download 1 photo: 0.05-2MB
- Download 3 minute MP3 audio file: 3-8MB
- Download 1 film trailer (720p): 50-100MB
- 1 software/game download: 5MB-50GB
- Download 1 film: 700MB-8GB
- Streaming 1 hour of video (standard definition): 150-350MB
- Streaming 1 hour of video (high definition): 1-2GB
- Streaming 1 hour of audio (160Kbps bitrate): 70MB
To work out a rough data usage requirement, estimate how much time you spend on common activities in a month. For example:
- 8 hours of SD video streaming (350Mb): 2.8GB
- 12 hours of audio streaming: 840MB
- Download one HD movie: 8GB
- Two hours Skype calling: 450MB
- Total data used = 12.09GB
Keep in mind that the more devices and users you have sharing the broadband, the greater the demand on your service. If you live alone but have a home full of gadgets the data requirements could be high. Or perhaps you have flatmates, a partner, or family members who put the broadband through its paces with lots of downloading and video streaming.
Remember that anything connected to your broadband — whether it's wired or wireless — will consume data, so each smartphone, tablet, or games console will need to be accounted for.
Maybe you also have special requirements. Online backup services like Dropbox can use a large amount of data, so if you store files online you’ll need to take this into consideration.
It’s also becoming more common to leave computers on for long periods of time, perhaps for remote access or serving files, and this again can contribute to a large amount of data usage.
If you do anything else a little out of the ordinary, such as hosting online games or running your own media server, then your usage could be higher than some.
How much data does TV streaming use?
TV streaming can use a very large amount of data in a short period of time, and now that streaming is so popular it’s a likely culprit if you ever run into problems with a data limit.
To give you an idea of the impact it can have, the table below shows the estimated data use of several major video streaming services.
Where possible we got this data from the services themselves, but this information is not always available so unofficial sources have been used when necessary.
These are only rough estimates, and your actual usage will vary depending upon video quality and the device used to view a stream. Many services use a variable bitrate which dynamically adjusts video quality to accommodate different devices and broadband speeds.
- SD (480p): 800MB per hour.
- HD (1080p): 2GB per hour.
- UHD (4K): 6GB per hour.
- SD (480p): 675MB per hour.
- HD (1080p): 1.5GB per hour.
- SD (480p): 1GB per hour.
- HD (1080p): 3GB per hour.
- UHD (4K): 7GB per hour.
Do I need unlimited broadband?
We highly recommend you choose an unlimited broadband deal, regardless of how little you may think you’ll use the internet.
Unlimited internet removes all the worry of monitoring your data usage and means you’ll never face additional charges or restrictions. It’s also cheap and readily available, in fact, you’ll very rarely find a data-limited package listed here on Broadband Genie.
But while they're not often found on Broadband Genie, capped broadband packages are still available and in some cases may be the preferred, or only, option.
Price could be one reason to opt for home broadband with data usage caps. Capped deals can be cheaper, so for budget-conscious buyers selecting a service that only provides the data they need each month can save money. However, unlimited deals are also now very cheap, so this is often not a compelling reason to choose a capped package.
But the cost may not even come into it if the lack of options forces your hand. In some areas, you may not have a choice due to the way the UK's broadband services are split into three different 'markets' based upon the available providers at your nearest exchange.
In 'Market 1' areas, BT Wholesale is the only available provider, so prices are higher. In this situation, some unlimited broadband deals you see advertised may not be an option. Your chosen ISP may still provide services but it could come with a cap.
Markets 2 and 3 are known as low-cost areas and have a wider choice of providers. While most homes are now in market 2 or 3 locations, there are still a few market 1 exchanges.
Frequently Asked Questions about internet data
How much data is used when streaming live TV?
Live streams will use a similar amount of data as any other streaming video. So on iPlayer, for example, the numbers listed above will apply to both live streams and catch-up viewing.
What’s the best internet provider for streaming?
The best provider for streaming is the one that can provide you with a connection that’s fast enough for streaming, ideally an unlimited deal! If you’re not sure what speed you need, our guide to choosing the right broadband speed can set you on the right path.
What happens if I use too much data?
If you have a data-limited package there are going to be penalties for exceeding your monthly data cap. This varies between providers, but in general, it will either result in an additional charge (usually a fee for each gigabyte of data used over the limit) or a reduction in the speed of your connection until the next billing period.
Some providers may also insist that you move to a different (and inevitably more expensive) package if you repeatedly use too much data.
How do I get unlimited broadband?
Getting unlimited broadband is really easy: Head over to our broadband deals comparison table, enter your postcode, see what offers are available in your area.
Almost all of our deals are unlimited, but on the rare occasion we do have a data-limited package it will be clearly marked.