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?
Data from CTIA-The Wireless Association suggests that the average smartphone user consumes roughly 800 MB of data per month—that's 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's a megabyte (MB)?
A megabyte is a unit for measuring data. Whenever you send an e-mail, download a photo, or view a Web page, your phone is sending or receiving data. When it comes to cell phones, 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)
What's a gigabyte (GB)?
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 CTIA data, consumers with smartphones—such as an iPhone, Android, or Blackberry—use an average of about 800 MB of data per month. That's far less than the standard 2 GB of data recommended by cellphone companies. And 800 MB is no small amount. In fact, a quick analysis shows it's more than enough data to send or receive 1,000 e-mails (250 with photo attachments), view 200 Web pages, post 50 photos on social media, download 10 apps, songs or games, stream 10 hours of music, and watch 60 minutes of YouTube videos.
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 downloading a cellphone app.
How do I pick the right data plan?
Below is a sampling of typical data plans currently available from wireless carriers.
AT&T customers can choose between two pricing structures: Individual/Family plan or Mobile Share plan. Data is not shareable on individual and family plans, but is shareable on Mobile Share plans.
Individual/Family data plans
• $20 a month per line for 300 MB ($20 per 300 MB after)
• $30 a month per line for 3 GB ($10 per GB after)
• $50 a month per line for 5 GB ($10 per GB after)
Individual/Family plan voice and text options
• Individual voice plans range from $40 a month for 450 minutes, to $70 a month for unlimited. Add $20 for unlimited texting.
• Family plans include two lines and begin at $60 a month for 550 shared minutes, and cost up to $120 a month for unlimited. Add $30 for unlimited texting on all lines.
Mobile Share data plans
If you exceed your monthly data limit, AT&T charges $15 for each additional GB you use.
• $40 a month for 1 GB
• $70 a month for 4 GB
• $90 a month for 6 GB
• $120 a month for 10 GB
• $500 a month for 50 GB
Mobile Share voice/text options
• $45 per line with 1 GB data plan
• $40 per line with 4 GB data plan
• $35 per line with 6 GB data plan
• $30 per line with 10 GB or larger data plan
Verizon's "Share Everything" plans allow data to be shared across multiple devices. If you exceed your monthly data limit, Verizon charges $15 for each additional GB you use.
• $50 a month for 1 GB
• $60 a month for 2 GB
• $70 a month for 4 GB
• $80 a month for 6 GB
• $90 a month for 8 GB
• $100 a month for 10 GB
• $40 a month per smartphone. Includes unlimited talk and text. (Feature phones cost $30 per line.)
Sprint plans combine voice, text and data pricing:
• $80 a month for 450 minutes, unlimited text and unlimited data
• $100 a month for 900 minutes, unlimited text and unlimited data
• $110 a month for unlimited talk, text and data
• $150 for 1,500 shared minutes, unlimited text and unlimited data for two lines (add $30 for each additional line)
• $190 a month for 3,000 minutes, unlimited text and unlimited data for two lines (add $30 for each additional line)
• $210 a month for unlimited talk, text and data for two lines (add $100 for each additional line)
T-Mobile plans combine voice, text and data pricing:
• $50 a month for unlimited talk, text and 500 MB of data. (Add $30 for a second line, and $10 for each additional line thereafter.) 2 GB of additional data can be added to any line for a $10 a month, and unlimited data can be added to a line for $20 a month.
• $30 a month for 100 minutes, unlimited texting and 5GB of data (prepaid plan, new customers only).
(Unlike other carriers, T-Mobile does not subsidize the cost of smartphones, but the company does allow customers to pay off smartphone purchases in monthly installments.)
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.
CUB created this chart as a helpful guide to define what your monthly usage is.
Web page views
Social media photo posts
App/ game/ songs
2 hrs HD
20 hrs HD
Data usage varies. The above figures are based on estimates from AT&T Wireless.
What can I do to lower my data usage?
Activate your smartphone's Wi-Fi connection to take advantage of wireless Internet that you might already pay for at home, and free Wi-Fi offered in restaurants, coffee shops and other public places. This will reduce the data your phone consumes over your wireless company's network, and potentially allow you to downgrade to a less expensive plan.
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
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the Illinois Legislature. If you have a question or complaint about a utility,
call CUB at 1-800-669-5556