How much broadband usage do I really need?

broadband web usage

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?

Estimating usage

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:

If that sounds a little high, subscribers can adjust their data usage settings to bring down their consumption:

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.

Comments

1
11 March 2016
geekborj

This is a great analysis! Thanks!

2
23 February 2016
Asim

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

3
4 May 2015
Fatriff

There is no OnLive anymore...

4
5 March 2015
meh

Do skype or other videocalling consume much? For everyday about an hour, 2 or more.

5
12 July 2014
eric

So my Comcast meter must be broken... it says I average 8GB per month and I watch Netflix 10 hours per week (no life) and there are other users in the house also watching several hours per month and 3 computers surfing internet, emails etc plus a couple tablets. I was going to change to freedompop 10GB for £19 per month until I started checking various pages like this one.

6
11 May 2014
David Robbins

Am on a 60gB allowance with plus net and I got to really make an effort to use up this amount. 3 hours worth of catchup services and YouTube videos and normal internet surfing and email uses up about 2gB. Just Internet surfing and email 500mB maximum per day.

If you are only going to be doing normal internet surfing and emails go for a 20gB allowance(660mB per day).

My internet costs £12.99 per month. That is broadband only. I get 60gB allowance and am not on a contract.

7
25 February 2014
khizar_07

A single user just browsing the web and no Youtube can consume over 5GB. Today's internet is full of images which require data and it's not like how it used to be in the past.
At £5 per 5GB a 2 hour 720p 3.2Mbps Internet Movie can cost as much as £2.81 for the data alone. Then there's the cost of paying for the rental of the movie. Higher compression can be used but that only ruins the quality of the picture!

8
13 October 2013
Sue

Hi - I live in a remote area which is too far from the BT exchange to receive a fit for purpose service. I now have satellite broadband which I have recently had to increase from 20 to 30GB (my son moved in!) at a cost of £55pm. Is there an alternative that you could suggest?
Many thanks

9
8 July 2013
mustdisquss

The media forgets about online gaming stores which offer their products for digital download. Assuming their physical editions don't require more than one disc, the largest download can in theory be just over 8GB for just one game, the rough equivalent of one single dual layer dvd.

With HD video also becoming standard for downloaded movies, streaming tv and general video on youtube etc, limits will of course decrease in time - compare download limits today compared to 10 years ago ;) ... but NO company should be able to call themselves 'unlimited' and then hide the truth in the small print. Unlimited is therefore a LIE, used in advertising to draw in gullible customers. Sad and obvious.

10
26 November 2012
Trevb

I was recently charged £5 for 5GB for going over the 10GB limit. However, whilst being charged for this amount you don't actually get to use any balance that's left at the end of the month. Can this be right that they can charge this amount and then take away what you've rightly paid for? Interested to know what you think.

11
11 November 2012
Alex

On average I use 1TB a year.

There are days when I download up to 20-30GB a day, then there are slacks when I download <1Gb a day.

12
7 September 2012
t

To Neville who is 80, I'm on Plusnet Extra and that costs around 33 quid so I would say think about Virgin before you do something you will regret, because I do, oh boy I do.

13
17 March 2012
Carol

On a number of occasions I have been billed for excess usage, (40GB per month) the latest example being an extra 87GB!

I browse websites for info, but not regularly for hours on end. I use email and occasionally and I do mean occasionally catch up on TV programmes but I don't download them. I very seldom watch anything on youtube and I have never downloaded films or music.

I have contacted my provider who assures me that there is no way my usage could be wrongly recorded and I have changed my password and made my router as secure as I can. On one such occasion someone else in the house admitted that their Xbox was connecting to my router but this device has now gone.

Could internet access from a mobile phone have anything to do with this? I would welcome your advice. In the meantime I shall keep my router switched off!

Thank you, Carol

11 May 2014
David Robbins

When you are watching catchup TV you are downloading data. SD programmes can take up 600MB an hour. If you are watching HD programming you are talking at least 1.5GB an hour.

It is very easy to use up 4GB in one day. Just watch a few episodes on BBC iPlayer. 4 hours = 2GB.

6 November 2013
datakoll

I caught the MiFi receiver connecting, plugged in to AC for recharge.

17 March 2012
Choose team

Bandwidth usage can be monitored with programs such as <a href="http://download.cnet.com/Net-Meter/3000-2155_4-10435551.html" rel="nofollow noopener">NetMeter</a>, however this would only record the usage from the computer it's installed on.

Some routers record access details from different devices as well as log web pages visited, etc.. Often you can research specific router models online for information on how to login to them from your web browser as well as how to check router logs and see which devices have been connecting to the router (not all routers will support this, but some do).

It's not completely unknown for ISPs to incorrectly record usage however - despite what they may say - and in previous cases it has been resolved after sending a formal complaint along with a record of usage from an independent monitor (e.g. NetMeter).

Hope this helps.

3 August 2015
elw

What I would like to know is who do you go to with this issue. I know my provider is not recording my usage correctly. For example, there have been charges on days when I am not home and the router has been turned off. There are days when I spend far less time watching internet TV but get charged double than the days I watched more. I have one day they claim I used 16GBs more than I have ever used in the two years I have been streaming - even by their standard. It is pretty discouraging when their technical service representatives tells you they have no ability to trace or track my lines from their side. I would like to put in a complaint, but not sure who to start with.

10 August 2015
Choose team

Start with the customer service team of your ISP and work upwards from there. We've a guide to how to complain, and how to escalate things if you're coming up against more problems, <a href="/media/guide/features/broadband-complaint-how-to.html" rel="nofollow noopener">here</a>.

Also, start monitoring your usage with an independent programme (like NetMeter, as mentioned above) as soon as possible. Should you have to go further with the complaint, that data will help back you up.

Hope this helps!

10 August 2015
elw

I have already gotten to what they called their 2nd level technical team. Although what made them second level was a mystery to me because they said the same things and ended saying they could not help me???? So far I am only able to monitor the usage of my computer since I have been able to figure out how to get the roku metered. I have been tracking my hours of use and what I am streaming. Do you know of any good meters that can actually meter what goes through my wireless router?

14
2 March 2012
neville

I'm 80 and only use the internet for browsing and shopping. My Virgin package is increasing by &pound;3.25 a month, I'm already paying &pound;29 odd per month plus phone calls via cable.

I would like to move to Plusnet Value but I'm worried about speeds via the telephone line. I can't continue paying Virgin &pound;33 per month though. Any advice is welcome, god bless, neville.

2 March 2012
Choose team

ISPs offer a fairly accurate speed test on their website and this can provide a good indication of how fast your telephone line will be, as it can vary depending on how far away you are from the exchange (unlike Virgin which isn't affected by distance). You don't need to sign up to get this speed, but you will have to put in your phone and postcode details.

This may help give an indication of the difference between moving to Plusnet, or another ADSL provider, or staying with Virgin Media.

All ISPs subscribe to a Voluntary Code of Practice set out by Ofcom, a recent addition to this states that users who sign up to a broadband provider can switch within 3 months if they are unhappy with the speeds they experience. See <a href="/media/guide/news/ofcom-advise-end-up-to-adverts.html" rel="nofollow noopener">here</a> for more on this rule (the final section).

Our <a href="/media/broadband/reviews/plusnet/" rel="nofollow noopener">review of Plusnet broadband</a> offers further information on Ofcom's speed reports of Plusnet and how they manage traffic.

15
29 January 2012
jasper

At home, we download on average 140GB a month, sometimes this has been as high as 380GB. But now I'm studying in another city, so I'm renting a room, and the wireless network has a limit of 15GB per month, with which I am really struggling, as at home we have unlimited internet. Now I'm already at 21GB, so almost each month I have to pay extra for when I go beyond the limit. Though I do still think I don't download much? I check emails, facebook, watch some youtube videos, maybe watch topgear online a few times a month and once in a while I download a little podcast movie (300MB) but still it goes so quickly :s

Do you have tips to keep the downloading down, but still offer enough entertainment to not get bored to death? :p

I think prices of download limits are way overpriced, at least in this city. At home, highspeed unlimited internet cost us $90 a month, while here, very very very slow internet with a cap at 15GB costs $20 a month, and every GB you go over, you pay $1,20. It's ridicolous!
And by the way, I do like to download a lot of movies, so sopa and pipa (or whatever they would be called) would ask us to pay for the movies, and pay tax, AND also the internet usage? That is just cruel... but yeah that is just my opinion... and the one of many more internet users.

Oh and maybe some tips for your statistics: I don't know where you got them, but in Belgium at least, more than 45% of internet users download movies and at least 80% watch a lot of youtube here... in America, it should be more, so why isn't it so high in the UK?

Greets
Jasper

11 May 2014
David Robbins

Stop watching Top Gear and when watching YouTube videos have the video quality setting set at 240p.

16
29 December 2011
Emma

Hi,

My son has been asking to join Xbox live and consequently being able to watch Sky on his Xbox. Have you any idea of how significant this would be in terms of our download limits? We are currently only using around 10Gb a month.

Thanks

17 May 2014
alex

Online gaming (Xbox live) can use 2.5GB per hour and that is without the numerous updates that occur. Unlimited is the only and best option for Xbox live.

29 December 2011
Choose team

Hi Emma,

Sky Go usage will vary, but file sizes are displayed as you browse programs to watch. Typically, it'll be similar to using BBC iPlayer, and it's likely to be around 300-500Mb for a TV show up to 800Mb-1Gb for a full length film.

10Gb is a fairly small usage allowance in our opinion for streaming TV and movies, and while you could watch a few TV shows a week without a problem, it'll certainly be worth keeping an eye on your usage as it could get used up quickly.

Hope this helps.

17
2 December 2011
S &amp; J

Interesting article. We have a frustrating time trying to watch BBC iPlayer via BT Broadband. The programme freezes whilst its loading the data to continue playing and recently gets about half way through a programme and then stops with a message saying "insufficent bandwidth to stream this programme".

We have experienced some problems with the connection recently. BT identified the problem with their exchange (located in the next town). Down here in Cornwall, BT Infinity is being rolled out, but it will be the end of 2012 before we can access this service.

We do regularly exceed the 10GB monthly allowance, but we are not interested in paying for unlimited usage if our download speeds are not sufficent to enjoy programmes. Any ideas in the meantime.

18
11 September 2011
Paul

I have a phone line that is a long way from the exchange and this limits my bandwidth to 2.5MB/Sec. Sky inform me that TV over the phone-line, broadband and telephone will not affect each other. However, if I am surfing the net, on the phone and watching TV I can not see how they will not impinge each others bandwidth.

19
26 August 2011
zoran

I have internet tv and two computers. I don't download anything but I use over 150GB every month. How much should internet TV use about for 1 month?

20
11 August 2011
A Mutton

I found your article interesting since I was searching for info on how much of my son's online gaming uses up my monthly download limit &amp; before I saw your article had been unable to find any definitve answers.

The reason for my search is that I'm getting told every month that I'm exceeding my 40GB limit with Talktalk but I cannot see how this is happening, according to the figures you give.

Even if he was online gaming for 12 hours a day we don't download films and music (only very rarely) mostly its just surfing. Some months Talktalk tell me that we have used up to 120GB! Can this be correct?

This has been happening for about the last 4 months and my son discovered online gaming about 2 years ago. There is only us two in the house and we haven't suddenly started doing anything different.

11 August 2011
Choose team

Sorry to hear about your problem. Unfortunately, we've heard about downloads being incorrectly recorded before. In previous cases, it has been resolved with the provider after sending a formal complaint, along with a record of downloads using another download monitor such as <a href="http://download.cnet.com/Net-Meter/3000-2155_4-10435551.html" rel="nofollow noopener">this one</a> &amp;lt;img src="/images/icons/newwindow_red.gif" width="12" height="11" alt="new window"&amp;gt;. Let us know how it goes - hope this helps!

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