What is data?

You use data every time you load a website, check your emails or stream a film online.

A data limit is the maximum amount of information your broadband supplier will let you download from the internet in one month.

Did you know?

There are 1,000 megabytes in one gigabyte of data.

Data is measured in megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB) and your limit will affect how regularly you can use the internet and what you can use it for.

Broadband companies offer varying limits at different prices but most suppliers will cap how much data you can download each month.

What data limit do you need?

You should work out what data limit you need and then choose a broadband deal that offers the right allowance at the cheapest price.

Depending on how you use the internet, data limits can be split into the following categories:

Low Medium Heavy
1-10 GB 10-20 GB 20-40 GB
Emails + browsing Emails + browsing + music + film Emails + browsing + HD films + gaming

Think about what you use the internet for:

  • Check and send emails

  • Browse websites

  • Access social media

  • Video calls over Skype

  • Watch video clips on YouTube

  • Stream or download films or music

  • Play games

  • Download or upload software

Most broadband companies offer unlimited download allowances with their basic packages but choosing a package with a lower limit could still save you money.

Low use 1-10 GB

If you only use the internet for light browsing and rarely download films or music, choosing a low data limit could be a good way to save money.

A limit of 2 GB a month lets you:

  • Check and send emails

  • Browse approximately 10,000 web pages

  • Stream 2 hours of standard definition video

  • Download 200 songs

  • Download a full length film

With a low data limit, you can still do all the essentials like check your emails or online banking, and have some flexibility to download the odd song or film.

You may find mobile broadband sufficient for light browsing. However, if you listen to music online or stream catch up services regularly, you will need to opt for a limit of around 10 GB.

Medium use 10-20 GB

If you think you could exceed a data limit of 10 GB but are not a heavy internet user, a medium use data package could be a good option.

This lets you use catch up services, watch films and download music, while avoiding the high costs associated with heavy use.

A limit of 15 GB a month lets you:

  • Browse websites and social media daily

  • Watch over 40 hours of catch up TV

  • Listen to over 100 hours of music online

  • Download 300 albums

A medium data package gives you some freedom to stream music and TV, but it will still restrict your ability to download high definition films.

If you regularly use catch up services or stream video, opt for a heavy use package to avoid charges accidentally exceeding your limit.

Heavy use 20-40 GB

If you regularly download films or music, play games online or use catch up services, you will need a heavy use data package.

If you stream TV or film in HD rather than standard definition, it will make a big impact on how much data you use. For example, Netflix will use 1 GB of data for every hour of standard definition video you stream and 3 GB for every hour of HD.

A limit of 30 GB a month lets you:

  • Stream 10 hours of HD TV or film

  • Download 3 HD films

  • Download 600 albums

  • Spend 15 hours gaming

If you spend a lot of time downloading films or music, or if you regularly download and upload software files, you should consider an unlimited package to avoid charges for going over your limit.

How does unlimited data work?

An unlimited package lets you download and stream as much data as you like without fear of exceeding your limit.

Unlimited packages are great if you spend a lot of time downloading large files, like HD films, or if you do a lot of online gaming.

However, they usually come at a higher cost and the download speed is usually no better for having a higher data allowance.

Most broadband companies offer an unlimited data option, but few packages are truly unlimited as fair use policies will usually apply.

Here are the pros and cons of unlimited data:

  • More flexibility

  • No unexpected charges

  • Great for heavy use

  • Usually not truly unlimited

  • Higher monthly cost

  • No change to download speed

What is a fair usage policy?

It limits excessive data use, like file sharing or heavy film downloads, at peak times. This is to ensure that one user does not affect broadband performance for others online at the same time.

A fair usage policy may significantly limit your download speed at peak times, even if you have an unlimited package.

Truly unlimited packages have no usage caps and no speed restrictions, so you always get the fastest speed available no matter how much you download.

It is more expensive than unlimited, but you will avoid the disappointment of hidden data caps or speed restrictions that may be applied to unlimited packages.

Can you track your data usage?

Yes, depending on the supplier, you could check your data usage by:

  1. 1.

    Checking online: Most suppliers let you check how much data you have used by logging into your account online.

  2. 2.

    Using an app: Suppliers like BT have a free app that lets you track your data usage throughout the month.

  3. 3.

    Calling your supplier: Your broadband company can tell you you how much data you have used if you ring and ask.

If you monitor your usage and find you use less data than your package allows, you could save money by switching to a lower data limit.

It is also a useful way to see if your broadband is being hijacked if unusually large amounts of data are being downloaded.

What happens if you exceed your data limit?

You may have to pay additional charges if you go over your limit, depending on your supplier's data limit policy.

Alternatively, your supplier may restrict your speed at peak times. This is known as throttling and many broadband companies favour this penalty over traditional fines.

Some suppliers send you a warning email when you exceed your limit so that you can modify your usage. However, others may not contact you until after the charges have been applied.

Most suppliers will let you increase your data for an extra monthly cost if you are regularly reaching your limit.