How much broadband usage do I really need?
Broadband providers like to shout about "unlimited usage" - to the point that many now feel the need to add words like "totally" and "truly" to get across just how free we are to upload and download. But do we really need it?
According to Ofcom's Communications Markets Report 2016, the average household spends almost 82 hours online at home each month, whether using their computer, smart TV or a mobile device.
More of us appear to be spending that time on more data intensive activities as well: Ofcom have found that the amount of data the average household gets through each month rose by more than 30GB from 2014 to 2015.
Yet BT and Sky both offer capped data packages, and one of the most highly regarded smaller ISPs also sells broadband with a data limit. So how much data do we really need?
It's a tricky question, especially as our online diets become more varied.
The best approach we've found so far is categorising typical internet use and estimating from there.
|Browsing + email||Browsing + TV and radio catch up||Browsing + catch up + downloads||All of the above + gaming|
|Up to 10GB/month*||10-30GB/month*||40-80GB/month*||40GB-unlimited/month*|
* These are estimates. See below for more detail.
In the next section we look in more detail at what these categories mean and how we came up with the estimates.
However, note that there are other ways to track usage.
Applications to monitor usage, a selection of which we look at here, give a more accurate picture of how much data we're getting through, and when.
It can also be worth having a rough idea of how many megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB) different activities will use. Here's a quick guide, using a minimal amount of data, and the 25GB limit currently in place on both Sky's and BT's capped fibre packages:
|Browsing the web||Songs||VoIP||Watching catch up TV||Films (download)|
|1GB||Three to four hours||200||Up to 40 hours of audio calls; one hour of video calling||Two hours, in SD||Up to one full length, in SD|
|25GB||75 hours||5,000||Almost 1,000 hours of audio calls; up to 50 hours of video calling||Up to 50 hours in SD||Up to 35 in SD, up to eight in HD|
The problem with this approach is that it appears accurate, but doesn't take into account mixed use, or that different sites and apps can make very different data demands for similar activities.
For example, we assume above that a song is 5MB and a film is 700MB, but file quality and size can vary from site to site, with higher quality files obviously being much larger.
Streaming sites such as Netflix often give their own estimates of how much data per hour users can expect to get through - but somewhat counter-intuitively, as long as the connection is steady enough, streaming will use less data than downloading.
Given all those caveats, that's why we think the best approach is to broadly estimate usage based on typical use rather than trying to do the maths.
More information on our usage categories
Just browsing and email: up to 10GB/month
People who simply surf the net and check emails without major use of sites that utilise video or audio streams may find they can get away with a very light use broadband deal.
"Browsing" encompasses many everyday web activities: according to Ofcom's Communications Markets Report 67% of us shop online, 63% use online banking, 58% use social networking sites, and between 40% and 45% of us use the web regularly for finding out news and information - all of which count as simple web browsing.
Once upon a time it was possible to get basic broadband that would cover this kind of use free of charge, in the form of Sky Broadband Lite. Those who took both their TV and phone line from Sky would get a 2GB/month allowance.
However, as data consumption has crept up, Lite has been retired and replaced with a slightly more generous package, Sky Broadband 12GB - but it costs £5 a month.
Music and radio streaming: at least 10GB a month
Back in 2010, a ComputerActive survey found that 85% of homes didn't use the internet for downloading films or carrying out other heavy bandwidth activities such as video calling, which, as we've seen, soak up GBs like a sponge.
But the rise of the likes of BBC's iPlayer, YouTube, Spotify, and Netflix has meant that we are more likely than ever to stream content online.
In the summer of 2016, Ofcom found that 59% of us had used a streaming video service in the past 12 months, with 29% of us doing so at peak time (up 9% on 2015).
Streaming audio is just as, if not more, popular.
In both cases the constant stream of data flowing between us and the central server means that they can be very data hungry.
No matter how high the quality of the stream - and it can vary dramatically - audio is the less hungry of the two.
The BBC's iPlayer Radio streams at various rates ranging from 48Kb to 320Kb, depending on the device we're using and the quality of the connection. Spotify generally streams at 160Kb with a "high quality" option available that boosts that to 320Kb.
At their highest rates, they should use up about 115MB in an hour - and as there are 1024MB in a GB, users could get through 1GB of data in just over nine hours.
TV and film streaming: at least 20-40GB a month
Estimating the data used by TV and film streaming has become more complex as sites roll out updates to improve video quality.
BBC iPlayer, for example, can adapt the quality of the stream, depending on the speed of the connection it detects.
Those watching on a computer should be able to restrict the quality to "low bandwidth", but watching iPlayer through a TV may require users to go into iPlayer's settings and manually choose "standard definition" to make sure it doesn't boost the picture quality - and therefore the amount of data it gets through.
There are various estimates of how much data iPlayer will use, ranging from up to 350Mb when streaming an hour of SD video to a phone over 3G or 4G, to up to 2GB per hour for an HD stream viewed on a TV.
Netflix also use adaptive streaming - but they're far more clear about how much data users can expect to get through per hour, depending on the quality of the stream:
- SD: about 1GB per hour
- HD: up to 3GB per hour
- Ultra HD: up to 7GB per hour
If that sounds a little high, subscribers can adjust their data usage settings to bring down their consumption:
- Low: 0.3GB per hour
- Medium: 0.7GB per hour (SD)
- High: as outlined above
- Auto: adjusts to best match the current connection
Most of the content available on Amazon Prime Video is available in HD as well as SD, with some also streaming in Ultra HD. An hour of SD content will use up to 500MB, HD will use up to 1.5GB per hour.
Based on those estimates, watching a couple of hours of SD TV online each week will use up roughly 1GB, or around 4-5GB per month.
Taking everyday usage into account too, then, we think 20GB a month is the bare minimum for streaming.
Those who want to watch more than that minimal, or stream in high quality, will need considerably more.
Also bear in mind that streaming video will affect other online activities, slowing down overall performance.
Downloading music and movies: at least 40GB a month
How far we've come since 2010, when that ComputerActive poll found that just 15% of internet users downloaded films, and around 30% downloaded music.
Admittedly the emphasis has shifted slightly, with more of us taking to streaming than downloading - but anyone who wants permanent access to the content they've bought from the likes of iTunes and Amazon Music will need to download it, and Ofcom say that 37% of us do so on a regular basis.
Pay TV subscriptions often offer some form of Buy to Keep content in their online stores, which also relies on us downloading and saving copies of that content.
This type of usage should be easier than most to estimate, however, as the file sizes are readily available as we download.
Downloading a film in HD means using at least 4GB - and possibly as much as 8-10GB, so we think a 40GB limit is necessary even for households downloading just one film per week.
Add that to a steady streaming habit as outlined above, and users may well need to double that allowance.
Gaming and VoIP: at least 40GB a month
If a household regularly uses the Internet for gaming, VoIP or both they'll need a high usage allowance or an unlimited deal.
While VoIP data usage depends on the program we're using (Skype, Viber etc), 1GB of data can be enough for up to 40 hours of calls - if that's the only thing we're doing.
Video calling, however, obviously uses far more data - and the better the connection and quality of the video, the more data it'll use. Expect to use about 40MB every five minutes, or 500Mb per hour, possibly more.
A four hour online gaming session can use from 120MB to 200Mb of data - but as with movies and music, high quality gaming feeds can use considerably more: we revealed in September 2011 that the OnLive gaming service can eat as much as 2.25GB an hour.
And remember that free patches and updates for games can often run into hundreds of megabytes.
There are also other concerns for particularly heavy users.
Some still place restrictions on heavy downloaders - and uploaders (such as gamers) - and those with capped deals are more likely to face traffic management and service restrictions than those with unlimited packages.
If and when restrictions do apply, they'll be in keeping with the ISPs' fair/acceptable use policies, which tend to focus on peak times - usually between 6-10pm.
For more information, see our provider by provider guide here.
Gamers should note that usage allowance is just one part of a good broadband for gaming deal: consistent and, ideally, prioritised connections are king. Unlimited alone doesn't cut it.
Read more on choosing a broadband package for gaming here.
Penalties for exceeding allowances
With more ISPs offering unlimited packages, it's perhaps not surprising that so few of us are aware of how much data we get through per month, yet exceeding allowances doesn't appear to be a huge problem.
When, back in March 2011, BT made one of their broadband deals unlimited they revealed that just 0.5% of their customers went over the 300GB monthly allowance; coming right up to date, at the end of 2015, Ofcom said the average household gets through 82GB of data per month.
Nevertheless, if the above information has made a capped deal seem more realistic and attractive, it's worth knowing what'll happen if it turns out staying within the limit isn't possible.
If a provider isn't included below it's because all their deals offer unlimited usage.
Providers with cash penalties
|BT||Charge £1.80 per 1GB unit that users go over their allowance.
Before this they send out two warnings via email: those with a 12GB limit will get the first when they've used 60% (about 7.2GB), then again when they've used 80%; warnings are sent at the 70% mark for those with a 25GB or 45GB cap, then again at 90%.
|Direct Save Telecom||Charge £5 for every 5GB.|
|Post Office||At the time of this update, have recently moved to selling only unlimited broadband.
Customers with the old Essential package who go over the 10GB limit will be charged 75p for every extra GB.
|Tentel||Charge £1.50 for every 1GB.|
|Zen||Customers will receive emails when they reach 50%, 75% and 90% of their usage allowance.
Should users reach their limit, they can buy additional data ranging from 1GB for £1.49 to 50GB for £74.50. Unused purchased data will be "banked" at the end of the month for future use.
Providers without cash penalties
Going for a provider without a cash penalty for extra use seems like a better bet.
However, providers reserve the right to upgrade those using more data than is included in their package, which can often end up more expensive in the long term.
Sky Broadband 12GB costs £5 a month - half the standard price of their Unlimited Broadband. Similarly their capped fibre deal offers 25GB of data per month for £10 a month compared to £20 for unlimited fibre.
|Sky||Go over the usage cap once and Sky send a warning email. If a user exceeds their monthly allowance more than once in any six month period Sky can upgrade them to a package with a higher cap, or charge fair costs for the excess usage.
Those who have been upgraded will be allowed to move back to the capped deal if they reduce their usage below that limit in any subsequent month.