How much broadband usage do I really need?

broadband web usage

Broadband providers like to shout about 'unlimited usage'. But do you need it?

According to a poll of 2,000 internet users carried out by ComputerActive magazine at the end of 2010, almost nine out of ten households pay for more usage than they really need.

But how much do you 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
2GB/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, examples here, give a more accurate picture of how much bandwidth is being used on the connection.

It can also be worthwhile having a rough idea of how many MB and GB different activities will use. Here's a quick guide:

Web pages Songs VoIP Films (download)
1GB 10,500 pages 200 10 minutes call time 1 full length
15GB 157,000 pages 3,070 2.5 hours call time 20 full length

However, as we noted above, this approach appears accurate while being imprecise. For example, we assume above that a song is five megabytes and a film is 700 megabytes but high quality files could easily be much larger and streaming rather than downloading will use much less.

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 on this approach below.

More information on our usage categories

Just browsing and email: at least 2GB/month

People who simply surf the net and check emails without major use of sites that utilise video or audio streams will be the best off, as the type of broadband deals suited to this activity are nearly always the cheapest.

'Browsing' encompasses many everyday web activities, ComputerActive's poll shows that most of us go online for shopping (62%), online banking (58%), social networking (57%) or for reading, entertainment or news (45%) all of which count as simple web browsing.

Sky's basic broadband, which is free with Sky TV, is a good example of a light use deal, it has a 2GB allowance.

Music and radio streaming: at least 10GB a month

ComputerActive's survey found that 85% of homes do not use the internet for downloading films or carrying out other high speed activities such as VoIP which, as we've seen, soak up GBs like a sponge.

But the rise of the likes of BBC's iPlayer, YouTube and Spotify has meant that we are more likely than ever to stream content online in addition to browsing and email.

The constant stream of data flowing between you and the central server means that it can be a very bandwidth hungry activity.

As we'll see, however, streaming audio is the less hungry of the two.

Online platforms such as Spotify, Last.fm and BBC radio generally stream at 256Kbps or 128Kbps at 'low quality'.

At that higher rate they should use up about 100MB for an hour. At the lower rate, 60MB for an hour.

There are 1024MB in a GB so you'd have to listen to music for over ten hours to use 1GB.

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, uses HTTP adaptive bitrate technologies to stream in higher quality, up to HD, depending on the connection it detects.

On the BBC iPlayer site you can select 'low bandwidth' to save on usage but that's not always possible. For example, watch iPlayer through a TV and quality will often adjust automatically.

Here are some estimates, note how usage jumps sharply with HD:

Speed 0.5-1Mb 1-3Mb (SD) 3.2Mb+ (HD)
Usage per hour 50-225MB 450-500MB 650MB-2GB

It's a similar story at Netflix which also uses adaptive streaming.

Lovefilm currently only stream in standard definition and estimate that 500MB is about right for a 90 minute film through their Lovefilm Instant service.

Based on those estimates, a couple of hours of standard definition online TV a week roughly equates to 1GB so around 4GB of usage a month.

Taking everyday usage into account too, then, we think 20GB a month is the bare minimum for streaming.

For streaming more than that minimal amount and certainly for streaming in high quality users will need considerably more.

Streaming and speeds

A survey from Eclipse Internet found that 33% of respondents thought that continuously streaming video wouldn't affect their speeds.

That's not right, streaming will slow down overall performance and this is worth bearing in mind.

Downloading music and movies: at least 40GB a month

According to ComputerActive's poll just 15% of internet users download films and 31% download music.

If you're part of that minority and download lots from iTunes or Amazon then you'll typically need at least 40GB of usage a month.

This type of usage should be easier than most to estimate, however, as the file sizes are readily available as you download.

Downloading a HD quality film means using at least 4 if not 8-10GB so we think a 40GB limit is necessary even for households downloading a film a week.

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.

24 hours of call time from one VoIP phone to another roughly equals 2.4GB while video calling uses even more, about 30MB for every minute or 1.75GB an hour.

A four hour online gaming session usually uses around 120MB of data.

However, as with movies and music, high quality can be considerably more: we revealed in September 2011 that the OnLive gaming service can use up 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.

For example, downloading very high amounts of data is often actively restricted by some ISPs within fair/acceptable use policies especially at peak times which are usually defined as between 6-10pm.

For more information, see our full 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

62% of broadband users are unaware of their broadband download allowance, according to Eclipse research.

Yet exceeding allowances doesn't appear to be a huge problem.

When, 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.

Nevertheless knowing what you're in for if your usage turns out to be higher than you thought is a good idea.

If a major home broadband provider is not included below it's because all their deals offer unlimited usage.

Providers with cash penalties

BT Charge £5.30 for every 5GB users go over their allowance. They send out email warnings when users reach 80% of their limit, around 7GB for those with a 10GB allowance and 32GB for those with 40GB.
Plusnet Charge £5 for every 5GB. You can set a maximum amount you're willing to spend on extra usage in your account settings. If you reach this limit your speed will be reduced to 256kb/s and all P2P, usenet and FTP traffic will be blocked until your next billing date.
John Lewis Charge £5 for every 5GB.
Primus Charge £2 for every 2GB.
Madasafish Charge £2 for every 1GB, capped at a maximum monthly charge of £99.99 for usage, plus your subscription fee.
Eclipse Charge £1.27 for each extra GB over the usage limit. You can choose to either be automatically billed for extra usage, or control costs by opting to have your speed restricted for the rest of the monthly billing period.
Zen They send out an email when customers reach 50%, 75% and 90% of their usage allowance. When customers reach 100% they're redirected to a Zen webpage where they can buy additional 1GB to 50GB of extra usage for £1.49 for each GB. Unused purchased usage will be 'banked' by the MB if not used by the end of the month for future use.
Post Office Customers that go over their deal with a 10GB limit will be charged 75p for every extra GB.

Providers without cash penalties

Going for a provider without a cash penalty for extra use seems like a better bet.

However, as we'll see, providers can 'move up' those using excessively which can be much more expensive in the long term.

Sky Everyday Lite (2GB limit) is free with TV, for example, but the next option Unlimited is considerably more expensive, almost £10 a month or £120 a year.

Sky Go over the usage cap once and Sky send a warning email. If the allowance is exceeded more than once in any six month period Sky can upgrade your broadband deal (or charge you fair costs for the usage). Once upgraded, you can move back if you reduce your usage below the cap in any subsequent month.

Comments

1
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.

2
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.

3
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!

4
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

5
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.

6
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.

7
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.

8
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.

9
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 NetMeter <img src="/images/icons/newwindow_red.gif" width="12" height="11" alt="new window">, 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.

10
2 March 2012
neville

I'm 80 and only use the internet for browsing and shopping. My Virgin package is increasing by £3.25 a month, I'm already paying £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 £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 here for more on this rule (the final section).

Our review of Plusnet broadband offers further information on Ofcom's speed reports of Plusnet and how they manage traffic.

11
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.

12
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.

13
2 December 2011
S & 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.

14
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.

15
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?

16
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 & 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 this one <img src="/images/icons/newwindow_red.gif" width="12" height="11" alt="new window">. Let us know how it goes - hope this helps!

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