Broadband usage guide: how much data do you need?
Summary: How much broadband will you use and what size plan do you need? We take a look at common online services and pass-times.
Some online activities require almost no data across your month, others can use hundreds or thousands of times more. It's important to understand your usage habits so that you don't end up paying for a bigger plan than you need.
All of our measurements were taken using an ADSL2+ connection that usually maxes out in the 16Mb/s range.
Bits & Bytes
The speed at which your internet connection operates is measured using a different standard than the size of the information being transferred. It's as if we used kilometres per hour to measure speed, but only measured the distance traveled in miles. It's dumb, but that's what we have to work with.
Bits: a bit is commonly used to measure connection or download speeds. The symbol for a bit is a lower-case 'b'. This is the same for megabits (Mb), gigabits (Gb) and other larger bit measurements.
Bytes: a byte is 8x larger than a bit. It is commonly used to measure the size of a file. The symbol for a byte is an upper-case 'B'. The same is true for megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), etc.
When downloading a file, the speed is usually displayed thus: '168.2Kb/s'. In this example you downloading something at 168.2 Kilobits per second.
If you want to keep track of your usage when downloading, ignore the speed when it comes to judging how much data you are using. The important information is the size of the file being downloaded. This is what will affect your cap.
Uploading counts as usage
Everyone knows what a
download is and that it uses up your cap. Uploading - the reverse of downloading - does it as well.
Uploading is the information being sent
out of your computer and off in to the never-ending ether of the internet.
Uploading used to be unmetered by ISPs, which means that it didn't count
towards your usage, but that is no longer common.
You will almost always be uploading while doing anything online. This is usually ok. Most uploading is done at a significantly smaller rate than downloads. However, if you use online cloud storage like DropBox or iCloud, or if you're a fan of file-swapping, then it can be an important factor. Be just as mindful of your uploads as your downloads.
Emailing uses up negligible amounts of data and is fine on any plan. The only time this is not true is if you receive a large file attachment.
Be sure to check the size of any attachment and make note of how regularly you receive them. Most email services have strict limits on the size of a file you can send, so this shouldn't be a worry unless you have a very small cap, or if you regularly receive emails with large attachments (multiple times per day).
You should also make certain of an attachment's legitimacy before opening it.
Make sure it's something you would normally receive from a contact you trust. Blindly clicking on file attachments is a good way to get your computer infected with malware.
"Web surfing" covers a lot of content. Assuming that you don't visit Facebook and don't intentionally stream any video, you can easily use around 2.5MB per minute when browsing on a laptop or desktop. That's about 2.5x as much as Facebook uses.
At 2.5MB per minute you'll hit 1GB in under 8 hours. The average Australian spends around 48 hours browsing the web per month. Assuming no video streaming or Facebook, that would add up to about 7GB per month per person in your household.
Of course, this figure depends entirely on the kinds of websites you visit. If there's a lot of video content, images, or GIFs then it will be higher. If you're more of a news-only user then it may be lighter.
Facebook & social media
Social media is totally fine if you're on a decent-sized cap of 20GB or up, but on those smaller ones it can use a surprising chunk.
During the course of casual Facebook browsing – chatting, browsing photos, status checking and clicking a few links – slightly under 2MB of data was consumed per minute.
That figure can go up or down considerably depending on your own usage patterns, as well as how many videos you end up watching, photos you click on and animated GIFs you end up viewing.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, claimed himself in 2014 that the average US user spends around 40 minutes per day on the service. That works out to around 20 hours per month.
At 2MB per minute that amounts to around 2GB per month per Facebook user. This is nothing to most landline connections, but for those cheaper mobile broadband plans it's a big number.
If you have kids it stacks up. Two teenagers would be using a good 4GB per month just with Facebook, assuming that they were only average users.
Skype and VoIP
Skype and other VoIP clients have changed the way we make international voice and video calls. It's also very easy on your data cap.
A standard voice call on Skype only uses about 360KB per minute. You would need about 48 hours of straight voice calls per month to approach just 1GB.
Video calls use more and it varies largely depending on the quality of the image being sent. It's very close to YouTube and other video streaming services in this respect, around 40MB every 5 minutes, or half a GB per hour. Most webcams are quite a bit under this, however.
Gaming is a hugely variable set of data. Depending on what game you are playing your usage will change, but it's all still relatively low. If your parents start blaming your gaming for going over the cap, don't turn around and tell them they're wrong. In fact, you may be more of a culprit than you imagine.
Some first person shooter (FPS) titles only use around 20-25KB/s (Kilobytes, not Kilobits), putting them at around the 1.5MB per minute mark. That puts gaming between Facebook and regular internet browsing.
On the other hand, a few modern shooters have been reportedly clocked upwards of 200MB per hour, which is huge.
Conversely, it can be much less. StarCraft II, a popular strategy game, used around 1.5KB/s on average in-game when it came out. It would take almost 200 hours of in-game play to approach 1GB.
Even with titles that use smaller amounts of data, gaming can still be detrimental for three reasons:
Gamers tend to spend many hours actively gaming. This can add up to a decent sum of data.
These days most games are bought online and downloaded. Games are very large, much larger than movies. One big-title game alone can put a dent in even a large download cap.
Online games require updates and patches. These are extra downloads on top of the original game that fix bugs or improve gameplay. These can be anywhere from a few MB to 8GB or more.
A common misconception about video streaming is that it doesn’t use up as much data as downloading the same video would. In fact, it uses about thesame amount of data.
You often end up using more. When streaming a video, the file buffers ahead of time. This is the segment of the film that you have downloaded.
Unfortunately, if you refresh the page, or close it down and come back later to re-watch it, chances are you'll have to download it all over again.
We logged how much data YouTube uses for a 5 minute video, using the more common resolutions.
Here is a table of the speed at which each video downloaded, as well as the amount uploaded per second and the final amount of data that had been downloaded.
Bits per second (down)
Bits per second (up)
Data used in 5 minutes
720p is the lightest form of of 'HD' and is a popular resolution. For every 5 minutes of 720p video footage on YouTube you're using up around 37.5MB of data.
In 2012, the average YouTube viewer watched
6 hours of video per month. YouTube has since stopped publishing this statistic, but does claim that the number of hours watched by users
goes up by 50% annually.
At 720p that long-surpassed 6 hours would have come to around 2.7GB of usage. This is a drop in the ocean for a big 100GB cap, but something smaller like a wireless 3G or 4G plan it can be devastating.
It also goes beyond YouTube. Videos are embedded in everything from online newspapers to review sites and even Facebook. It all adds up, so be mindful if you have a limited cap when it comes to video content.
Netflix and other Internet TV services
Internet TV and IPTV services are similar to YouTube in how much data they use per minute, but end up using a whole lot more data over the course of a month. It makes sense, just think of how likely you are to watch 2 hours of YouTube per night vs your favourite movies or TV shows.
We've already got a detailed article covering
how much data each month you're likely to need for Netflix and similar services, the basic gist of which is: a lot.
To boil things down, at Standard Definition (SD) viewing expect around 36GB, at High Definition (HD) expect around 156GB and if you somehow manage to consume all of your Netflix-watching time streaming 4K you could hit a whopping 364GB per month.
Most users can expect their usage to be between the 36GB SD and 156GB HD figures. For a more detailed explanation click the article link above.
If you don't use Netflix but do use another service like Presto!, Stan or Fetch TV, the figures will be similar.
Downloading movies & TV shows
Downloading movies and TV shows, either legitimately or by piracy, can be a huge hit to any download cap. Often, you will be given the size of the file or files in question. This makes it pretty easy to estimate the affect it will have on your monthly download cap.
Some legitimate download sources try to make things less intimidating by "helpfully" removing the file size. If this is the case, then using the Netflix usage statistics article linked above may be helpful.
Take the length of the movie and multiply it by the relevant image quality. Netflix estimates
3GB per hour for full HD content and 700MB per hour for SD (standard definition). This will not perfectly translate to every file download, but it's a good rough estimate to keep in mind.
Tick and Exclamation Mark images from Shutterstock