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What is mobile data and how is it counted?

Mobile phone plans can include upwards of 100GB of data per month, but how you use it and how it's counted can impact how long it lasts.

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Calls and texts are no longer the main selling point of mobile phone plans. Data is what matters these days, as it allows you to access the Internet, browse the web, watch videos and download apps on the go.

What you need to know

  • Accessing the Internet via 3G or 4G uses mobile data, whether you're on a phone, tablet or other mobile device.
  • Mobile data is counted in chunks, with some telcos using larger chunks than others.
  • The larger the chunk, the more likely you're paying for data you don't use.

What is mobile data?

When you access the Internet on your mobile device, you're actually connecting to your mobile provider's network and requesting a data file, whether that's for an email, a video or the latest social media update. The size of each of those files may vary considerably and they don't necessarily line up with the amount of data your provider will charge you for.

That's because phone companies use a system whereby they split data usage into chunks, often called "packets". The size of these packets can differ from network to network, but it's these chunks that your telco counts against your overall data usage.

How is mobile data counted?

This process might sound confusing, so here's a breakdown of how the maths actually works.

Let's say you've got a 100MB mobile data allowance and you watch a YouTube video that's 5.5MB in size. If your telco counts data in an absolute sense, then you'd have 94.5MB of data left (100–5.5=94.5MB) for the rest of the month. Some telcos do indeed count data this way, calculating usage on a per-KB basis.

However, other telcos may count data in different ways. It wasn't that long ago that some providers counted data in 10MB segments. For a 5.5MB file, that would mean you'd be charged 10MB for accessing that single file, despite using just over half that actual amount.

The good news here is the vast majority of Australian telcos now charge in per-KB increments, meaning you're generally only paying for the data you actually use.

Why does my data keep running out?

The catch with the previous example is that it doesn't reflect the reality of how modern smartphones work. Most apps and mobile services access the Internet on a continuous basis rather than requesting a single file and leaving it at that.

For instance, most email apps talk to your email server periodically to check whether you've received any new messages and notify you accordingly. This often means the app is communicating with your email server multiple times a day, using up data each and every time.

Mobile data usage tool
It can be hard to know which mobile data plan to choose. We've designed a simple data usage tool designed to estimate how much data you'll need on average each month.

Email apps aren't the only offenders, either. Navigation apps such as Google Maps or Apple Maps use mobile data to help detect your location. This technique is known as A-GPS. While it only uses a minimal amount of data each time it hones in on your location, it will repeatedly update itself if you don't properly close the app when you're done with it. Over time, this can chew through a decent chunk of mobile data.

Equally, a lot of "free" apps tend to feature advertising banners that source data from the Internet. That data can add up, especially if the ads are always present while you're using the app.

How do I reduce my mobile data usage?

Fortunately, modern smartphones come with tools to manage your mobile data usage. You can limit usage on a per-app basis, allowing certain apps full access to your mobile connection while restricting others to only go online when you're connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot like the free Telstra Air network.

To do this for iOS, head to Settings>Mobile and scroll down below the section headed USE MOBILE DATA FOR.

Here, you'll see each app installed on the phone, how much data it has used (so it's also easy to spot the data-hungry apps as well) and whether it's authorised to use mobile data. If the switch is in the green position, the app is able to access mobile data. If it's in the white position, mobile data is off and the app will only access the Internet when you're connected to a Wi-Fi network.

On Android devices, go to Settings>Data Usage, where you can also set a mobile data usage warning, and check the background data usage of each app. If you don't need it sending you notifications, remove that option for apps to keep your data usage low. Likewise, if your Android device is set to update apps automatically, restricting that to Wi-Fi only can save you significant data usage.

To change your app update settings, open Google Play, hit the hamburger icon in the top left and head to Settings. From there, adjust the Auto-Update Apps setting to either disable app updates entirely or only permit them over Wi-Fi connections.

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