CUB's Guide To Cellphone Data Plans
(For a pdf version, click here)

Choosing the right data plan
Unlike minutes and text messages, which are relatively easy to quantify, understanding data usage isn’t so simple. How many "megabytes" does it take to download a photo anyway?

According to mobile measurement company, Mobidia, U.S. wireless customers on average consumed about 1.8 GB of data each month in 2014—much less than what’s included in many wireless plans. This guide explains how data usage is measured, breaks down plans currently being offered by wireless companies, and helps consumers choose the best plan for them.
What are a megabyte (MB) and a gigabyte(GB)?
A megabyte (MB) and the larger gigabyte (GB) are units for measuring data. Whenever you send an e-mail, download a photo, stream video, view a Web page, or post on social media, your phone is sending or receiving data. When it comes to cellphones, 1 MB of data is equal to roughly one of the tasks below:
•  Sending or receiving 50 e-mails (without attachments)
•  Streaming 2 minutes of music
•  Viewing 1 web page
•  Posting 3 photos to your Facebook page
•  Watching 30 seconds of video on YouTube (Sites like Netflix stream higher quality video, meaning you'll use even more data)

One gigabyte, which is about 1,000 megabytes, roughly equals one of the tasks below:
•  Sending or receiving 50,000 e-mails (without attachments)
•  Streaming 33 hours of music
•  Viewing 1,000 web pages
•  Posting 2,800 photos to your Facebook page
•  Watching more than 8 hours of video on YouTube (Higher quality video, like Netflix, uses even more data)
According to Mobidia data, consumers with smartphones—such as an iPhone, Android, or Blackberry—use an average of about 1.8 GB of data per month. However, companies may push you to sign up for plans with a higher data cap— including expensive "unlimited" data plans that you may not need.

No matter what carrier you’re with, be sure to check with it frequently, at least during the first few months of your contract, to monitor your data usage. You may be able to access your data usage info by texting your provider, logging into your online account, or checking the settings on your smartphone.
CUB created this chart as a helpful guide to define what your monthly usage is.
User
E-mails
Web page views
Social media photo posts
App/ game/ songs
Music
Video
Total
Light
50
25
10
0
0
0
29.5 MB
Medium
500
100
100
10
0
0
185 MB
Heavy
1,000
250
200
20
5 hrs
2 hrs HD
1.17 GB
Extreme
5,000
1,000
500
100
25 hrs
20 hrs HD
8.4 GB

Data usage varies. The above figures are based on estimates from AT&T Wireless.
How do I pick the right data plan?
Below is a sampling of typical data plans currently available from wireless carriers.

AT&T

Individual line charge:
•$30/month

Additional line charges:
•$25/month per smartphone on AT&T Next or No Annual Contract using 5 GB or less, and $15/month for devices using 15 GB or more
•$40/month per smartphone on 2-year contract using 5 GB or less and $15/month for devices using 15 GB or more
•$20/month per basic phone using 5 GB or less and $15/month for devices using 15 GB or more

Data is then shared across multiple devices at these rates:
• $20a month for 300 MB ($20 per 500 MB after)
• $30 a month for 2 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $50 a month for 5 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $100 a month for 15 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $140 a month for 20 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)

Verizon

Line charges:
•$20/month for each smartphone line

Data is then shared across multiple devices at these rates:
• $30 a month for 1 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $45 a month for 3 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $60 a month for 6 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $80 a month for 10 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $120 a month for 12 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
Sprint

Individual line charge:
•$60/month for unlimited talk, text, and data

Data can be shared across multiple devices at these rates:
• $20 a month for 1 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $25 a month for 2 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $40 a month for 4 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $70 a month for 8 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $100 a month for 10 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
• $120 a month for 40 GB ($15 per 1 GB after)
T-Mobile

All T-Mobile plans offer unlimited data at the slower 2G speed, along with unlimited talk and text. To attain faster 4G LTE speeds, pay a certain amount for data per month.

Data is not shared. Line charges and data cost...

For the first line...

•$50 a month for 1 GB
•$60 a month for 3 GB
•$70 a month for 5 GB
•$80 a month for unlimited data

For the second line...

•$30 a month for 1 GB
•$40 a month for 3 GB
•$50 a month for 5 GB
•$60 a month for unlimited data

For lines 3-10...

•$10 a month for 1 GB
•$20 a month for 3 GB
•$30 a month for 5 GB
•$40 a month for unlimited data

No overages for any plan.
Tethering allows you to connect your smartphone to your desktop, laptop, or other device, acting as a modem and allowing the device to access the Internet through your smartphone's connection. If you tether, be sure to monitor your data usage closely, as services like Netflix can quickly send you over your plan's data limit.
What can I do to lower my data usage?
Use Wi-Fi. Set your smartphone to use Wi-Fi whenever it's available. That includes your home—if you pay for Wi-Fi—and coffee shops and other public places that offer free Wi-Fi. This cuts down on your data usage and could allow you to downsize to a cheaper plan.

Turn off apps. Beware of data-devouring apps or features—like Facebook, Twitter and weather updates—that may continue to run in the background long after you need them. Make sure they're turned off when you're not using them. Free apps, like Onavo, pinpoint which applications are using the most data, and help you reduce your usage.

Set data alerts and limits. Under your phone’s settings, you can set limits on how much data you use. You can even enable notifications to be sent to you when you are nearing your limit.

Stream less. Streaming video and music eat up a ton of data. Streaming in HD is even worse. Just one hour of streaming HD, can eat through two gigabytes of data. Try to delay streaming any content until you are on your home computer.

Unfortunately, certain sites, like Facebook, now automatically play videos without you clicking on them. Try to turn off the automatic streaming option in your settings, if possible.

Turn off GPS. Apps that run in the background may access your GPS to track your location, generate advertisements, and download maps. That eats up data. (One drawback to turning off GPS: That means your phone will be more difficult to track down if it's lost or stolen)

Avoid ad-supported games While you play your "free" game, every banner or page ad that appears on the screen chips away at your data.

Use your cache. Don't clear the cache of your Web browser. If you do, that means you'll have to redownload images and other media files the next time you visit your favorite websites.

Download a light or text-only Internet browser. Browsers like Opera Mini or TextOnly can reduce your data usage when you surf the web.

Be wise on trips. Use Wi-Fi to predownload maps before you leave, rather than using your phone's data connection on the go. Google Maps allows you to save and store maps for offline use.

View mobile pages. Such webpages generally have fewer elements to load than full Web pages, and are optimized for viewing on smaller screens. Note: Mobile pages have an "m." at the beginning instead of a "www."

What's the alternative?
Prepaid wireless companies, like Boost Mobile, Cricket, and Straight Talk, offer unlimited talk, text and data plans starting at around $45 per month with no contract. While smart phones are available, you won't have your pick of the very latest models. For more information, read CUB's prepaid cellphone fact sheet. CUB is a nonprofit, statewide utility watchdog organization that was created by the Illinois Legislature. If you have a question or complaint about a utility, call CUB at 1-800-669-5556.