So which data plan should I choose?

Making sense of data plans since all of the carriers took away unlimited plans has been difficult for many. Data, unlike texts and talk minutes is hard to measure. With texting you can measure them by how many texts you send. With minutes you can measure by how many minutes you talk. Over the last few years carriers have made unlimited plans available to us. However they have came to realize that the channel in which people have came to communicate over the last year or so is through data. We use our mobile device to connect on Facebook and Twitter far more often than we place a call. It was only a matter of time before they did away with unlimited plans. There is just no money to be made in unlimited plans. So how do you make the right choice between plans and how can you check to make sure you are not exceeding the limits of the plan you chose?

How mobile are you?
If you are like me then you spend most of your day communicating through your phone. Even while behind the computer I am using my mobile device to connect through apps on my iPhone. The introduction of apps on the phone has made my life much more productive. I do small tasks such as check email and more advanced tasks like restarting my servers after I make a change to one of them. It really is amazing what you can do from a mobile device these days.

However, some use their mobile devices for very little. They love the apps and have a few but rarely use apps that connect to the internet for much more than submitting a new high score. They may check email and maybe even update Facebook once or twice a day, but that is it.

Data is confusing, please explain it to me:
Data plans are currently measured in Megabytes (MB) and Gigabytes (GB). There are 1024 Megabytes in a Gigabyte. Most carriers at the time of writing this have two plans, a small plan and a large plan. The smaller plans are usually around 200 Megabytes and the larger plans currently at 5 Gigabytes. I will give you an idea of what kind of data usage you can get out of each of the two plans. Keep in mind that on the iPhone using iTunes to download Music, Videos or Apps you are only allowed to download files up to 20 Megabytes in size over the network. You can download files of any size when connected to a Wifi. Some see this as a limitation but on these new data plans I see it as a savior.

  • Taking a Picture and emailing it: 100KB – 2MB (Some camera phones take large photos. The iPhone 4 can take a 1.5MB sized photo now)
  • Downloading an album from iTunes or Amazon MP3 Store: 70MB – 200MB (Depending on length of the album, if it comes with digital artwork, music videos, etc.)
  • Downloading an episode of MadMen through iTunes on the iPhone: ~600MB (Average length of an hour show in regular definition. HD files are even bigger)
  • Downloading an App through iTunes or Android Market: 1MB and up (Most apps are over one Megabyte now. This is due to the user interface, UI or in other words, making them more pretty to look at)
  • Downloading an Audiobook through iTunes or the Audible.Com App: 100MB and up (Depending on length of audiobook and audio quality, some are two or more parts)

Like I mentioned before, on the iPhone you can not download files over 20MB with out using a Wifi connection. That does not stop you from downloading multiple files that are under 20MB in size. On my Android phone I have yet to see such a message. So I am let to believe that there are no file size limitations on the Android phone. There could be limitations on other phones that I am unaware of.

I use Audible.Com’s app for my iPhone and Android Phone. You can download audiobooks that you have recently purchased to your device. There is no file limit with in that app so I can download a 200MB audiobook using a 3G connection. This may take some time but I have done it while driving. Once the audiobook has downloaded approximately 1-2% you can start listening to it. The file continues to download in the background. If I had the small data plan currently available I would get one audiobook download and I would be done.

How are these plans billed?
The new trend in data plan billing is different than cell minutes. With cell phone minutes, if you go over you are charged a price per minute you exceed your plan. With data, you get charged for a new plan and your data resets. For example, if you have a 200MB plan which has a cost of $20 per month and you exceed it. You will be billed another $20 and you will receive an additional 200MB for that month. There is no roll over with data, so your unused data at the end of the month is gone. Some carriers are still charging per megabyte for overages. Make sure you look into this before getting locked into a contract.

Upgrading to more data.
From what I have seen with the major US carriers, you can upgrade to a larger data plan at any time, even mid billing cycle and downgrade as well. With voice plans you usually have to wait until the next billing cycle for the plan to take effect, sometimes changing your voice plan will even restart your contract.

Always ask your carrier if the change you want to make will restart your contract with them. Wireless carriers are sneaky evil companies who would lock your baby into a contract if they could.

How do I know how much data I have used?
On the Android Phone this is very easy. They have an app that records that information and even displays it in your notification bar. There is a free app for Android called PhoneUsage. I recommend you download it.

On the iPhone we are currently not so lucky. There is a section in Settings that will show us our phone usage but it includes Wifi data as well. Wifi data use does not count toward your data package. You can download myWireless from AT&T and manage your account from your iPhone. You can also look and see how much data you have consumed. However I do not know how often that updates. I doubt it updates on the fly.

Choosing a data plan for my iPad or other Wireless Tablet:
I was lucky enough to get the unlimited plan on the iPad before it was retired. However I never get close to using enough data to really warrant having an unlimited plan. I hold onto it because as more apps become available I have began to use it more and more. I also find myself using my iPad with a Wifi connection far more often than I use it with a 3G connection. This means that most of the data my iPad uses does not even use any of the data from my plan.

Choosing a wireless data plan for your laptop:
It is almost a joke that they would offer a 200MB wireless plan for laptops. Windows 7 probably uses up 200MB just checking to see if there are any new updates. On a PC you want to be vary careful about your data usage. If your computer is infected with spyware, the spyware could be using data in the background. Leaving other applications open could also run down your data if they are using an internet connection for anything. On my Mac I am often listening to Pandora Radio while working on a website. At the same time I have a Twitter client running, I am updating Facebook, my Email Client is checking for new messages, MobileMe is syncing my contacts and calendars, Dropbox is syncing new data… The list goes on. All of these things use data. Using your Wifi connection at home or in your office you do not notice this data usage, but on a limited data plan you will learn really fast how much data you really pull into your computer.

Controlling Data usage on a laptop:
On a Mac you can download an app called SurplusMeter. On the PC there is an open source application called FreeMeter. Both of these applications will allow you to track data usage. As you use data, the applications will record it. You just want to make sure you turn off the tracking while you are connected to something other than your laptop card or you will assume you have used much more data then you really have.

Ultimately you can also log into your carriers website and look at your data consumption. However this will take time and I am all about productivity.

I hope this helped!
Understanding new technologies and the way we can be charged for them is difficult. I hope that this helps you understand it a bit better so you can take control of your data usage. Now you definitely know enough to be dangerous. ๐Ÿ˜‰ If you have any questions, thoughts or suggestions, please feel free to add them in the comment section below. I will do my best to respond to them.


  • Bbailey97
    July 30, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Are there settings that can be changed on iPhone that would help to minimize data use?

  • Naturale
    December 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Hey, just want to thank you. This was helpful. I use Verizon and, as you say, they are wicked – they would charge by the word if they could.

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