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So what is a gigabyte for mobile users, anyway?

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Verizon’s (s vz) move this week to follow rival AT&T (s t) by eliminating unlimited data plans may not affect most smartphone users today, but could impact them in the future as handsets are used for more purposes. Such tiered data plans, where customers buy a set amount of monthly broadband, are easy to understand at the point of purchase, what isn’t clear is how much data is needed for different activities. Deciding which data plan will be enough for a month of smartphone use, without choosing a higher priced plan that provides more bandwidth than is needed represents a growing challenge.

To help its customers adjust from unlimited plans, Verizon has created an online calculator with a number of data-intensive activities, which complements but differs from AT&T’s own data usage calculator.¬†And that’s the crux of the problem here, because different smartphone uses eat up different amounts of bandwidth in a given time. Think of the system like electricity, although in this case, you have to measure by the megabyte per hour instead of a kilowatt per hour. You can light a room with 100 watt incandescent bulb and use 100 watts in a given hour or you can illuminate the same room with a more modern LED light bulb using (and paying for) only 13 watts of power in a hour. The same concept applies to emails, web browsing, VoIP calls, and streaming video: All use the same network, but require different amounts of broadband.

Verizon’s calculator does a fine job at providing a monthly estimate of broadband data needs based on the wide range of mobile activities, but here are some guidelines on just how much data different activities use on a smartphone. Bear in mind that these are general guidelines as the broadband needs of some similar activities will vary, which makes this all the more complicated. Streaming the same video in a high quality or high-resolution setting will use more bandwidth than streaming the same video streamed at a lower setting, for example.

Mobile broadband usage by activity
Activity Data use in Megabytes (MB)
Streaming low quality music (64 kbps / 1 hour) 28.8
Streaming high quality music (192 kbps / 1 hour) 86.4
Low quality video (1 hour) 200
High definition video (1 hour) 400
Upload / download a 5 megapixel photo (JPEG) 1.5
Upload / download a 1080p video (1 hour) 2,000
Upload / download a 720p video (1 hour) 1,000
Download an average 400 page ebook 0.77
Video call (1 hour) 75
Typical email, text only 0.01
Install Angry Birds on Android 19
Install Need for Speed Shift on iPhone 179
Download a 42 minute album from iTunes 85
Note: 1,000 MB = 1 GB

Again, these are guidelines to get you started in understanding how much mobile broadband smartphone activity requires. Because some activities use small bits of data, such as social networking status updates, tweets and text-only instant messaging, I’ve bypassed them in this table. But data-intensive activities, like those in the chart, can add up. A 2 GB monthly plan, could be used up in as little as a few hours if you stream high-quality video to a smartphone, for example.

There are a number of varying factors when considering mobile broadband needs, but one mantra should hold true: The higher the quality or the more immersive the experience of any media or file, the more bandwidth it will require. That’s just like the electricity example. If you want brighter lights in a room, you’re going to need more electricity.

It’s also worth noting that the more mobile broadband you purchase under either the AT&T or Verizon plan options, the cheaper the service is on a per-gigabyte basis. At the low end, a 200 MB plan, or one-fifth of a gigabyte is $15 or $30, depending on the carrier. That works out to a per-gigabyte cost of $125 to $150. But a 2 GB plan from AT&T is $25, making the price of a gigabyte a much more palpable $12.50. And a whopping 10 GB from Verizon is $80, bringing the per-gigabyte unit price down to $8. Overages for both carriers in most cases are $10 per gigabyte, which happens to be very close to what it costs a carrier to deliver a gigabyte of mobile broadband, according to Chetan Sharma, a wireless analyst.

Note: the table was built upon certain assumptions (which will vary by user) and created with help from an online bandwidth calculator as well as information from the carrier sites.

11 Responses to “So what is a gigabyte for mobile users, anyway?”

  1. Coolrocks

    According to my monthly bill, I use less than 600MB non-wifi data per month. I use wifi on my device at home. I stream music, watch YouTube, almost everyday.

  2. Steve Crowley

    These tools help but assume all smartphones are the same; they’re not. A Blackberry will use less data for web browsing compared to other smartphones, for example, due to the compression used in the RIM network. There is also reported to be an operating system dependency — iOS vs. RIM vs. Android.

  3. Janisys

    This sounds like a conspiracy to me. Data caps make smartphones to be underutilized. It was good when phones were downloading files in kilobytes. The caps just take the smart out of smart phones. The carriers are just exploiting us because of our data dependent phones.

  4. Carriers in the US still don’t get it – people are sick and tired of counting geebees and sick and tired of paying overage charges!!! Give me a data plan that let’s me use my smartphone, netbook and 4G MiFi device the way it was designed to work, simple as that!

    I seriously doubt that it costs a Hamilton to deliver a gigabyte when carriers such as Clearwire and Sprint still offer uncapped 4G, and in some cases can do it for as low as $19/month. I really don’t think Verizon would be promoting a 10GB plan at $8/GB if they were loosing money over it.

    The blame here I feel lies to a heavier degree on the FCC. Every handset/data device sold in the US must go through them for approval first. Millions of these devices are in use today. Yet the commission has failed to regulate or enforce carriers to have in place a network infrastructure capable of handling the data traffic these devices require, and provide consumers with a satisfactory experience.

    I don’t consider myself a heavy user, but I do work on the road frequently, and I use well over 10GB per month. My usage is in fact well closer to 25GB. Where does that leave me as a tech-savvy mobile professional in the carrier’s marketing materials?

    I’m certain Verizon would not have created such a big stink if they would have matched Clearwire and Sprint with an unlimited 4G plan.

  5. Tyler

    You can’t install Need for Speed Shift on iPhone over 3G. There’s a 20MB limit – unless you’re jailbroken… :) Just saying. Also, why are Verizon’s overages @$10 per GB cheaper than the initial plan??? That’s absurd.

  6. In Brazil we are Ph.D on tiered data plans. Here in some carriers we use 300Mb, 1Gb or more(Depending on the plan) after that we have to use mere 64Kbps or pay a high price to maintain the same speed/capacity.

  7. Your numbers are woefully low. A 720P video should be around a gig an hour. I had slingbox on for an hour and a half the other day on Sprint Wimax and it consumed over a gig. Streaming an hours work of music at 192 will be around 86 megs not 8.6

  8. Are you sure these calculations are correct? 192kbps*3600 seconds = 86.4MB according to my Win7 calculator. 40 hours of commuting a month while listening to music gets you 2.5GB of traffic right there.

    And if you’re roaming in Canada, 1GB will cost you around $10,000.

  9. I highly doubt it costs them 10 dollars to deliver you a gigabyte. They’re just capping to make more money. The whole most people only use 800 megabyte aurgument is a bunch of crap. If that is true why cap? Why not just throttle speeds like t-mobile or even better build out your LTE network so the price of delivering a gigabyte cuts in half! There are options they just don’t want to use them.