Mobile plans: Steph Nash
The trick to picking a plan with just the amount of data to suit your needs is to work out what type of user you are
Smartphone users have a very complicated relationship with their mobile data. Although the latest Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) mobile data report shows that instances of bill shock have declined, we’re still paying around $60 a month on average in charges we didn’t anticipate. How do we stop this? By picking the right plan for our mobile habits.
WHERE DOES ALL YOUR DATA GO?
Data users can be classified into three categories: low, medium or high use. Online comparison site WhistleOut classifies low data use as 1GB a month, medium use as between 2GB and 3GB a month and high data use as 5GB a month or more.
Certain apps use more data per hour than others, so depending on what apps you’re using at the time, your daily data usage can fluctuate wildly. This makes it difficult to identify where your data is going, which is what you need to know to accurately predict how much data you’re going to use each month so you don’t have to oversubscribe to $10 data add-ons or overzealous data plans.
To help consumers get an idea of where their data goes, the team at WhistleOut has run tests on the most popular apps to identify how much data they require per hour. From there, the hard part is working out how much time on average you would spend each day on each app away from your home or workplace wi-fi connection.
Social media apps are the big data killers. And like it or not, many of us are too addicted to them to do anything about it.
Facebook uses between 80MB and 160MB every hour, depending on how much video content you’re browsing. If you use the app for an hour every day, you would be using between 2.4GB and 4.8GB each month on Facebook alone. This 2GB range shows to what extent video content can affect your data usage, so if you’re looking for ways to cut back, disabling Facebook’s video autoplay feature is a must.
WhistleOut editor Joe Hanlon says that out of all the social media apps he tested, the results for Instagram’s data use was by far the most surprising. The photosharing and video-sharing app clocks up a whopping 720MB an hour, meaning that if you spent one hour a day on the app, your Instagram use would equate to an enormous 21.6GB a month. For hard-core Instagram users, Hanlon recommends a minimum data allowance of 20GB a month.
“We were shocked at how quickly Instagram used up data,” he says. “It’s as if YouTube was loading a whole bunch of videos in the background ready for you to watch them just in case you need to.”
If you travel a lot or have family living overseas, you might regularly use a video communications app such as FaceTime or Skype. While you might expect these apps to use a lot of data each time, WhistleOut recommends a mid-range plan of at least 3GB if you’re going to use them for about an hour a day.
Until recently, the rise of the new streaming apps in Australia made large data plans of 8GB and above highly appealing. Culture vultures eager to catch up on their favourite television shows on their commute could use Netflix or Stan on the go – albeit at the expense of their data. Audiophiles can use Spotify and Apple Music to listen to the latest tracks and curated playlists in real time – whatever songs you want, whenever you want. But recent updates to these apps mean that you can see and hear as much as you want on the go without using a single megabyte of your mobile data.
You can now pre-load a lot of video and audio content using wi-fi before you travel. Spotify has had this feature the longest, followed by Netflix and, most recently, Stan. “You’d be silly not to download your videos in advance,” says Hanlon. “You might find it more convenient just to stream on the go, but if you’re really data conscious you could plan ahead.”
What sort of savings are we talking about? The music streaming sites are the less potent, with Spotify using about 150MB an hour. This comes to about 4.5GB a month if you stream for at least an hour every day. The data savings for video streaming are even more significant.
Of the three big video streaming apps, Netflix uses the least amount of data at 250MB an hour. One hour a day of Netflix on the go would use 7.5GB in a month. Stan surprisingly uses the most, at 570MB an hour or 17.1GB over a whole month.
So if you were on a large data plan to justify streaming video content for at least an hour every day, you could easily pre-download your content and spend way less on a medium-use plan.
If you prefer the convenience of streaming on the go, Hanlon says the sites are at least doing as much as they can to make sure you’re using your data efficiently. Each app allows you to change the bit rate of your stream so that you can view or listen to your content at a low quality, saving you data. Most apps also issue idle warnings to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep or walked away from your phone without ending your stream.
If you’re looking for ways to cut back on your data, disabling Facebook’s video auto-play feature is a must
GAMING, NAVIGATING AND SHOPPING
Online games don’t use up as much mobile data as you would expect. WhistleOut tested two popular mobile games – Hearthstone, a medieval card game with 10 million to 50 million downloads on Google Play, and Fire Emblem Heroes, a Nintendo role-playing game with between 1 million and 5 million downloads on Google Play. These two popular apps averaged a tiny 3MB an hour, so you could play both games several hours a day without breaking 1GB in a month. This might give you a better idea of where your teenager’s data is going – or rather, where it definitely isn’t going, despite what they may tell you!
Hanlon says navigation apps like Google Maps and Apple Maps are also surprisingly low data users. “I quickly looked at my maps data use for this month and, even though I’ve used it a fair bit this month, it was only about 15MB,” he says.
“It’s really just downloading the bits that you need
from where you are – it’s not like it downloads a whole country’s worth of maps, it only downloads what you need at the time.” If you’re really worried about your navigator eating up your data, you can always download certain geographical areas before you leave and use them offline while you’re driving.
One data burner that might surprise you is online shopping apps – specifically, the apps that include video, where you can view items of clothing for sale straight from the catwalk. Hanlon says that in a minute of using the ASOS app he clocked up about 5MB, which per hour would equate to 300MB. Not many of us are looking at these apps for an hour every day but, if you were to, you’d be burning through 9GB of data in a month.
WHICH PLAN IS BEST
Low data users probably don’t have a lot of mobile apps or a highly active social media presence. To be using only about 1GB of data a month, you wouldn’t be checking social media on the go very much (if you even have a social media account), and are likely to restrict your daily mobile use to calls and text messages using phone credit. Most plans with about 1GB of data come with unlimited calls and SMS but there are a few that still limit you to a few hundred dollars’ worth of credit. These are usually the cheapest picks of the crop. If you’re not at all worried about exceeding your limit, both for data and credit, then go right ahead but you’re probably going to get better value from a plan with unlimited calls and messages. (See tables, page 51.)
To use between 2GB and 3GB a month, a medium data user would be likely to have several social media accounts and apps they’re using a few times a day outside of wi-fi. You might watch a few Facebook videos here and there or use Google Maps to help you get around every so often but you probably don’t spend any more than about an hour a day using your apps on the go.
Hanlon says high data use is all about the consumption of online video content. To be using 5GB of data or more a month, you are likely to be spending more than an hour a day on social media and would regularly stream video and audio content on the go.
BIGGER BUT NOT BETTER
To avoid bill shock consumers are starting to take out larger plans as an insurance policy but in doing so are signing up to plans that are too generous for their data usage, according to Hanlon.
With the number of large data plans on the market on the increase (such as Amaysim’s new 70GB mobile plan or Optus’s ambitious 100GB mobile plan), consumers
appear to be taking the “more bang for your buck” approach. But this might not necessarily be the smartest way to go. “Large data plans have almost become a marketing tactic,” says Hanlon. “You can see why buying a plan with the most gigabytes sounds like it’s the best value but there has to be a point where you say there’s too much.”
“If you end up paying $10 or $20 a month more than you need to as an insurance policy, then over a year that’s a lot of money to waste on data that you don’t use.”
If you end up paying $10 or $20 a month more than you need to, over a year that’s a lot of money to waste”