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Data usage guide: how much data do you need?

These days we're increasingly likely to have a multitude of hardware 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).

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 work out how much you might use in a typical month by adding up usage. The table below shows the typical data usage of common activities, 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 SD video streaming (350Mb): 2.8GB
  • 12 hours 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 keep a copy of vital 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 as it’s now a common use of home broadband 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 popular video streaming services.

Where possible we got this data from the services themselves, but this information is not always available so unofficial public 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.

Service SD (480p) HD (1080p) UHD (4K)
Amazon Prime Video 800MB per hour 2GB per hour 6GB per hour
BBC iPlayer 675MB per hour 1.5GB per hour ?
Netflix 1GB per hour 3GB per hour 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. At the time of writing every one of our broadband offers includes unlimited data.

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 which 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 price 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. You 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 a market 2 or 3 location there are still a few market 1 exchanges.

What you get for your Gigabyte - a Broadband Genie infographic 

A little while ago, Broadband Genie designed the following infographic, which does a great job of summarising some of the information above. Why not check it out, or share it if you found it useful?

Creative Commons Licence
Mobile Broadband Usage Calculator by BroadbandGenie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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 for iPlayer the numbers listed above will apply to both live streams and catch-up viewing.

What’s the best 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.

Most of the time all of our deals are unlimited, but on the rare occasion we do have a data-limited package it will be clearly marked.

Which providers offer unlimited broadband?

All providers listed on Broadband Genie offer unlimited broadband. That includes popular ISPs such as BT, Sky, TalkTalk, and Virgin Media, as well as smaller providers such as Origin and Onestream.

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