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How is my mobile data counted?

Your mobile plan includes up to 20GB of data per month, but how you use it and how it's counted can impact how long it lasts. Here's why the way your telco counts data really matters.

When you use a mobile data service, what you're actually doing is connecting to the mobile provider's network and requesting a data packet, whether that's for an email, a video file or the latest social media update. The size of each of those files may vary considerably, but it's not the case that what you're charged in data terms is absolutely identical to the size of the files you're downloading.

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That's because all phone companies use a system whereby there's a minimum data packet size that's counted, and it's these increments that are included as whole or partial counts against your data usage. That might sound confusing, so here's a breakdown of how the maths actually works.

Lets' say that you've got a 100MB allowance, and you watch a YouTube video that's 5.5MB in size on your smartphone. If your carrier counts data in an absolute sense, then you'd have (100-5.5=94.5MB) of data left on your plan to use for the rest of the month. Some telcos do indeed count data per KB of usage, and so that's all you end up using.

However, others have previously counted data in different ways. It wasn't that long ago that some providers counted in 10MB segments. For a 5.5MB file, that would mean you'd be charged 10MB for the access period for that single file, despite only using just over half that actual amount.

The reality with a smartphone is that you're likely to be accessing services on a relatively continuous basis, even if the actual data draw of an individual action is relatively low. So, for example, if your email is set to check on a push basis (so it turns up whenever it hits your email server), you could be pinging your email server a number of times a day, incurring a data usage charge every time.

The good news here is that the vast majority of Australian telcos do now charge in per-KB increments, meaning that your data sessions generally will only count against your realistic data usage.

So why does my data keep running out?

Because you keep using it, even though you might not realise that you're doing so.

Aside from those times that you're surfing the web, watching videos or listening to streaming music on your phone, all of which use data rather more directly, there are many apps that use data in the background, either as a function of how they provide their services, or because of the way that they make money.

So for example, mapping Apps such as Google Maps or Apple Maps use mobile data as a way to speed up their ability to provide a precise GPS lock, known as A-GPS. This only uses minimal amounts of data in order to help triangulate your position, but if you don't formally close your mapping app when you're done, it will continue to track your position on the not-unreasonable basis that you might want to continue receiving location information at any time.

Equally, a lot of those "free" apps, especially games, tend to come with advertising banners that pop up in menu screens or wherever they won't interfere with the game in hand. The data for all those banners mounts up, especially if they're always present while you're playing.

The good news here is that you can manage mobile data usage by apps in a quite granular way from your smartphone, limiting it to the apps that you really want to ensure full mobile data usage for, while leaving others only able to access online data when you're connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot.

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's 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, which is the default, it's able to access mobile data, whereas if it's in the white position, mobile data is by default off, and it will have to rely on times when you're in 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 enable that, open up 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.

Need more mobile data? Consider these high data plans:

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Alex Kidman

Alex is the Telco Editor at finder.com.au. He's been writing about consumer technology topics for the best part of two decades, and enjoys breaking down complex topics into their component parts.

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