Mobile Internet Data Explained: What Do You Really Need?

Do you consider mobile internet data to be an essential? If you do, you’re not alone. For many people, smartphones are the main way to get connected, with 33% of internet users telling Ofcom in 2015 that their smartphone is their most important device for going online¹.  However, not everyone will entirely understand how mobile internet data actually works and, therefore, could find they’re not on the right data plan. This means potentially overpaying for a contract or spending extra money each month because you keep going over your data allowance. Consequently, if you want to make sure your finances are as good as they could be, you might want to get in the know about mobile data.

What does all the different terminology actually mean?  

Mobile data lingo can be really confusing. However, once you understand the difference between a KB and GB, it gets much easier.

Byte – this is the basic unit of information used by computers. It’s made up of eight 1s and 0s, enough to represent a single letter.

KB – stands for kilobyte, which is a unit of measurement for data usage. It’s the equivalent of about 1,000 bytes.

MB – stands for megabyte, which is a unit of measurement for data usage. There are about 1,000 kilobytes in a megabyte.

GB – stands for gigabyte, which is a unit of measurement for data usage. There are about 1,000 megabytes in a gigabyte.

3G – This is the 3rd generation of mobile technology that allows mobile devices to connect to the wireless internet. There are lots of different versions of 3G and the speed varies depending on provider.

4G – This is the 4th generation of mobile technology that allows mobile devices to connect to the wireless internet. It is currently considered to be the fastest technology available for mobile but there are lots of different providers of 4G so performance does vary.

So when do you actually use your data?

Mobile internet data is eaten up every time you aren’t connected to Wi-Fi and browse the internet, send an email, stream a TV programme or music service, and download or use apps. To put this in simpler terms, for every 1GB of data allowance, you can send about 100,000,000 emails without attachments or watch 120 YouTube videos that last 4.5 minutes, according to O2².

If you’re connected to Wi-Fi but apps are still running in the background, you may find that you’re still using data. To conserve usage, check what apps are drawing on data and switch it off.

How do you know how much data you need when choosing mobile data plans?

You need to ask yourself how often you use your mobile to connect to the internet when you’re not connected to WiFi. And when you use your mobile data, what do you use it for? You’ll probably fall into one of the below categories:-

  1. Light user: Only uses the net for about an hour a day to browse the odd website, check social media and check email. Doesn’t really play games or download stuff.
  2. Medium user: You don’t necessarily use the internet for a long time but you download and stream a few times a month. You might also download your email to your phone every day.
  3. Heavy user: You use the internet for a few hours a day and send/receive a lot of emails with attachments. You probably rely on your mobile phone data for work and you download and stream quite a lot.

When working out how much data you need, it’s also worth looking at how much you currently use and working out if anything will change this in the future. You can usually access this information online through the account you have with your phone provider. If not, if you go into your phone provider’s store, they’ll be able to pull this data and talk you through it.

What happens if you go over your allowance?

It depends on your provider. Some will charge you but others have in place something called a fair use policy. This essentially gives you a bit of a data buffer that they deem to be ‘fair’, which is usually 500MB. Some providers that offer this will then slow down your internet speed when you go over your limit to prevent you from doing anything that uses large amounts of data, such as streaming long videos.

How can you make sure you get the right plan?

Identify how much data you need, then choose a package that will ensure you’re comfortable for the duration of your contract, even if you have a change in circumstances. You should also shop around to make sure you’re getting the best deal and if you’re looking to save money, you might be interested in ‘Top tips to get the best mobile phone contract’ to help you along the way.

Remember that your mobile phone contract can affect your credit score if you struggle to stay on top of payments. By finding the best plan for you, costs are likely to become much more manageable.


¹ Data provided by Ofcom using a variety of sample data sources among, such as the technology tracker survey, its residential consumer postal tracking survey, its business postal tracking survey and its media tracking survey, as well as a range of ad-hoc research.

² This is not inclusive