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Broadband data limits: what do you get for a gigabyte, and how much do you need?

Broadband data limits: what do you get for a gigabyte, and how much do you need?

Broadband data limits: what do you get for a gigabyte, and how much do you need?

Firefox download dialogue We’re delighted to bring you a guest post this week from none other than Matt Powell, Editor at UK’s leading independent broadband, mobile broadband and smartphone comparison website.  Matt gives some great advice on understanding broadband usage ... If price is the most important factor for you when choosing broadband then offers like Plusnet’s £2.99 a month broadband deals are incredibly tempting. But of course these bargain broadband packages typically come with a limited monthly data limit. In Plusnet’s case that’s 10GB for Plusnet Essentials (or 40GB for Plusnet Essentials Fibre)*, but what does that actually allow you to do and how do you know whether it will be enough? Let’s take a closer look at what you can get for a gigabyte of data and how different online activities can impact that limit ... First, it’s important to understand that everything you do online consumes data. This monthly usage is affected not only by downloads but uploads too. That means you could just as easily consume the allowance by uploading photos and videos to Facebook or YouTube as you could by downloading. Also, remember that computers, tablets and smartphones will, by default, have background functions which consume data silently. Anti-virus tools will download definitions, operating systems require patches and smartphones and tablets may automatically install app updates. You may wish to configure these to download manually, or only in off-peak times, however one caveat to this is that operating system updates, anti-virus and other security tools should always be left on automatic. These are, in general, relatively compact and very important, so switching these off is not recommended as it could compromise your computer or network. * Don't forget, usage between Midnight and 8.00am each day is free and doesn't count towards your monthly allowance - Ed.

Bits vs bytes

Before we continue, a quick note on some jargon. Bits per second are typically used to measure data transfer speed, while bytes describes the size of a file. There are eight bits to every byte. You can tell if we’re talking bits or bytes by the upper or lowercase characters – lower case is bits while capitals denotes bytes. For example, your broadband connection might be 16Mbps (megabits/second), which means it is capable of downloading 2MB (megabytes) every second.

Web browsing and email

If most of your time online is spent on web sites and email then you don’t need to worry about data limits too much. In general web pages, being largely text and compressed images, use relatively little. Things like browser games (of the sort found on Facebook) and Flash animations do require more, however even then 10GB of data per month would give you many, many hours of browsing time. You could use 3GB of that allowance to access more than 2,400 average web sites and still have plenty left over for some file downloading, video and audio streaming and thousands of emails. Simple text emails - whether sent from a desktop client or webmail service - are so small most of us don’t need to be concerned about data limits, but if you often attach large files they can have a bigger impact. Exactly how much will depend on the size of the attachments. Streaming video and audio So web and email aren’t much of a concern, but the big numbers come into play when we look at streaming video and audio. On-demand sites like 4OD and iPlayer are now a very popular alternative to live TV, YouTube serves up four billion hours of video every month, and Spotify has over 20 million users. If anyone runs into a problem with data caps there’s a good chance it’s down to video or audio streaming. Tracking the data usage of streaming services can be tricky as they all use different quality settings, and some like iPlayer adapt to the speed of the connection. As a rough guide, the lowest iPlayer stream can use between 50-225MB per hour, standard definition consumes around 500MB per hour while high quality (HD) streams can use 650MB – 2GB an hour. That means that you could burn through a 10GB monthly limit with just five hours of HD video. Audio is more forgiving. A data rate of 192Kbps is typical for audio streams, which equates to about 115 hours of audio before hitting that 10GB limit. Some services – including BBC Radio – now provide high quality 320Kbps streams but these reduce listening time to about 71 hours. In moderation the occasional TV stream, YouTube clip or a few hours of radio aren’t a problem but if streaming audio and video is something you do frequently then a low data cap could quickly become an issue.

File downloads

The other major use of a broadband connection is of course transferring files from the internet to one of your devices – this could be anything from a movie saved to your computer hard drive, to file sharing downloads, to a video game from Xbox Live. This is another area where data caps can be problematic as files can be huge. While a mobile app or Windows tool might just be a few MB, an entire game can easily run to 10 or 20GB, and there goes your limit for the month. Only you can say whether this is a problem. If you’re not regularly running large downloads for any reason then it’s not a big concern, though Plusnet users have the option of downloading at off-peak times when the cap is not in place, a good way to get cheap broadband and still fill up your hard drive.

What happens if you go over the data limit?

The consequences for exceeding your cap vary between ISPs. Some will enact a speed restriction that may prevent you from doing much more than browsing the web. Others charge a fee for every GB you go over. As an example, if you hit the cap on a Plusnet Essentials package you’ll be notified through email and the data limit can be capped or increased by 5GB for £5, as you wish. This can occur multiple times up to the spending limit you define. After that the connection speed will be dropped to 256Kbps. Check your ISPs terms and conditions to find out what kind of restrictions you might face. Be particularly careful of those which talk about a ‘fair use’ limit. This often means there is a hard cap on the data usage but you may need to dig into the small print to find out exactly what it is. In general though the majority of internet users don’t need to be overly paranoid about their data limits. Make a rough estimate of your monthly usage based on the kind of things you do most often with the web, and choose a package that’ll give you some head room. If you’re concerned you might be close to the limit check with your ISP - Plusnet provides a ‘View My Usage’ tool which will show how much you’ve used that month. And remember that you can always save those big downloads for off-peak periods when the cap doesn’t count. Thanks Matt. For those looking for a broadband service without a download allowance, Plusnet Unlimited is truly Unlimited and there's no nasty surprises or Fair Usage Policies. How much bandwidth do you use each month? Got any tips for scheduling downloads overnight or keeping your data consumption under control? Let us know by leaving a comment below ...


You might know that Plusnet has gone mobile with some great SIM only contracts. So if you have tips to limit your data consumption, let us know too!

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