How much broadband usage do I need?

Last updated: 6 April 2021   By Neil Hawkins

Most broadband contracts now come with unlimited monthly usage, meaning customers are not capped on their monthly downloads.

Along with this, the scrapping of many fair use policies means there are usually no unspoken limits to usage either.

However, broadband usage caps still exist on some affordable tariffs as well as some deals for mobile broadband for the home and satellite broadband.

With broadband usage now unlimited for most households, the next step is to work out how fast home broadband should be to meet a customer's needs.

internet usage

Are all broadband contracts unlimited?

The vast majority of broadband contracts in the UK now come with unlimited monthly usage.

Even fair use and traffic management policies which used to implicitly limit how much households could use every month by putting forward a fair use limit have now fallen by the wayside.

Customers on some social tariffs will find their data limits capped every month, but those are very much the exception to the unlimited data rule on fixed line broadband.

There are two other situations to highlight where usage caps may be applied: 4G/5G mobile broadband for the home and satellite broadband.

Mobile broadband for the home

4G and 5G mobile broadband deals can be used as home broadband in packages offered by EE, Three and Vodafone.

While Three's default is for unlimited monthly data, the deals aren't so clear cut with EE and Vodafone.

The cheapest option on EE's 4GEE Home Router 2 comes with a 100GB data cap per month, with the unlimited option costing around £20 more per month on an 18-month contract.

Device Data Initial price Monthly price Contract term
EE 4GEE Home Router 2 100GB £50 £35 18 months
EE 4GEE Home Router 2 200GB £50 £40 18 months
EE 4GEE Home Router 2 300GB £50 £45 18 months
EE 4GEE Home Router 2 500GB £50 £50 18 months
EE 4GEE Home Router 2 Unlimited £50 £55 18 months

For customers who want the flexibility of a rolling contract, the biggest data usage allowance available from EE is 500GB per month:

Device Data Initial price Monthly price Contract term
EE 4GEE Home Router 2 500GB £150 £50 1 month

It's a similar story when we look at Vodafone's GigaCube, their home broadband device available with 4G or 5G deals.

The top usage option on the GigaCube 4G is 300GB, although there is an Unlimited option on GigaCube 5G:

Device Data Initial price Monthly price Contract term
Vodafone GigaCube 4G 100GB Free £30 24 months
Vodafone GigaCube 4G 200GB Free £40 24 months
Vodafone GigaCube 4G 300GB Free £50 24 months
Vodafone GigaCube 5G 100GB £100 £30 24 months
Vodafone GigaCube 5G 200GB £50 £40 24 months
Vodafone GigaCube 5G Unlimited £50 £60 24 months

As we can see, customers taking most of Vodafone's GigaCube plans will be subject to a monthly usage cap.

Mobile broadband for the home, then, is one of the few situations where usage limits may be a factor for customers.

Satellite broadband

As we discuss in our guide to rural broadband options, some satellite broadband deals have usage caps as well as comparatively slow speeds (when looked at beside fixed line broadband anyway).

To illustrate, here is the top package from Freedomsat:

Package Broadband Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
Freedomsat Home 75 15Mb average
75GB cap
12 months Free £105

Customers who choose the more expensive option of satellite broadband usually do so because fixed line and mobile broadband options have proved fruitless.

It's unlikely to be anyone's first choice, and the hefty price tag with the above package is a good indication why.

Estimating broadband usage

Even if most broadband packages come with unlimited usage, it's worth understanding how much data different activities have.

As we explored above, mobile broadband devices for the home often come with monthly caps attached and many of us will use mobile data when we're out and about too. This table can serve as a useful guide on how much data we use in any setting:

Activity Data usage (average)
Downloading a document 2Mb
Downloading a photo 2Mb
Downloading a music track 4Mb
Downloading 100 emails 10Mb
Visiting 50 webpages 150Mb
Making a 1 hour audio call 225Mb
Making a 1 hour video call 350Mb
Streaming 2 hours of video in SD 700Mb
Streaming 2 hours of video in HD 4GB

These are illustrative examples and actual usage varies depending on a household's needs during a month.

However, to show how these activities can add up to substantial broadband usage every month, let's take a closer look at some typical usage for a household:

Activity Data usage Cumulative total
Downloading 100 photos 200Mb 200Mb
Downloading 200 emails 20Mb 220Mb
3 x 1 hour audio calls 675Mb 895Mb
Downloading 50 music tracks 200Mb 1.1GB
Visiting 100 webpages 300Mb 1.4GB
Streaming 20 hours of video in HD 40GB 41.4GB
5 x 1 hour video calls 1.4GB 42.8GB

By far, the most data heavy activity here is the HD video streaming, and this is where having unlimited internet usage intersects with having fast internet.

Importance of broadband speed

With almost all broadband packages now unlimited, the focus has shifted to how fast our broadband needs to be to cope with our needs.

As we explain in our guide to 1GB broadband and why households might upgrade to it, broadband speed is as much about household capacity as anything else.

It's unlikely customers will do one or two things at once that would require broadband speeds of up to 1GB, but the speed of household broadband matters more when multiple devices are online at the same time undertaking data heavy tasks.

Imagine a situation where one family member is streaming a HD film in the living room while another is playing an online game in another room and streaming their activity live. Perhaps a third is browsing the web or on a video call, and the mobiles of all household members plus any smart devices are active too.

It's easy to see how plenty of data might be used at once, and that's why many households are upgrading from superfast broadband to ultrafast broadband and gigabit-capable connections if they get the opportunity.

Specifically in terms of gaming, there are two elements to consider: the data/speed used to download the game in the first place and the data/speed of the connection while playing.

Although we cover broadband for gaming in more depth in a dedicated guide, it's worth highlighting some of the biggest PS4 titles of recent years and how big the files were:

Game File Size
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 175GB
Red Dead Redemption 2 105GB
Final Fantasy XV 100GB
The Last of Us 2 78GB
Grand Theft Auto V 70GB

If we tried to download any of these on the capped mobile broadband or satellite plans mentioned above, we'd use up most of our broadband limit for the month, if not all of it.

It's further evidence that the amount of data we use (and how fast it is) matters to the modern household.

Increased usage in 2020

The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns in 2020 brought with them unprecedented demand for home broadband. Many ISPs released details of data usage, giving us a unique snapshot of how much data we used when many of us were confined to the house most of the time.

Virgin Media's snapshot told us:

  • Broadband customers downloaded an extra 2.8GB of data per day
  • Data uploads increased by 64%
  • Streaming and on-demand viewing time increased by 26%
  • November was the busiest month, with customers downloading an average of 17.3GB per day

Data from TalkTalk showed a year-on-year increase of 50% compared to 2019, with the largest peak in traffic taking place on 16 December 2020 when the latest Call of Duty season was released.

TalkTalk highlighted several occasions during late 2020 where data peaks were recorded including other console updates, football on Amazon Prime and international rugby.

Finally, network operator Openreach confirmed broadband usage more than doubled in 2020, with the daily record for usage being broken 15 times.

They say households on their fibre network consumed an average of 9GB per day, the equivalent of streaming two or three HD films in every home every day.

Coronavirus didn't alter the peak times for traffic: the busiest days on the Openreach broadband network were Saturday and Sunday, with the daily peak tending to be between 7pm and 10pm.

Conclusion: unlimited broadband standard

The vast majority of broadband packages we come across today are unlimited, giving customers the opportunity to download as much as they want to every month and to live their lives online in the way we're all becoming familiar with.

Apart from the capped usage niggles on some social tariffs, mobile broadband for the home contracts and satellite broadband deals, the amount we can download is in our own hands.

However, that isn't to say the networks themselves can't be affected by heavy usage, and they spent a lot of time in 2020 building extra capacity into their networks so customers didn't experience too many internet problems while they were home much of the time.

With unlimited broadband data now the norm, the next frontier is ensuring households have broadband fast enough to meet their needs. We've got more information about that in our guide to the best providers for fibre broadband.


Stipan Lisica
8 February 2018

I watched 30GB of YouTube videos in just 3 days, plus gaming and browsing.

Alekseyevich Gargarin
5 December 2017

We are now in 2017. I joined Steam on the internet, as I enjoy playing computer games. However after buying Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, it transpires that I needed to download and install, 100 GB, yes, that's correct, a 100 GB game installation. This is absolutely astounding, and surely there must be some way that these game developers can be taken to task for us having to pay through the nose to actually download the very product we purchase from them, they should be taxed for being able to force us into this ridiculous issue, no doubt that these companies will all cry foul if anything is done about it.

11 March 2016

This is a great analysis! Thanks!

23 February 2016

Nowadays, my total usage averages to 72GB a day.

4 May 2015

There is no OnLive anymore...

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