Constantly exceeding your mobile data allocation can be an expensive business. Here's how to calculate what you really need and what you should pay for it.
Everyone's data usage varies, so there's no absolute one-size-fits all answer to the question of how much data you actually need on your mobile plan.
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Careful selection and analysis can give you a much better idea of your likely data needs, which can then sensibly inform what kind of mobile plan you ought to sign up for. There's no point in spending extra money for data you'll never use, or for that matter being stung for excess usage fees when a higher-tier plan might be a better fit.
Data usage naturally relates to the types of activities you undertake online. If you're a heavy Netflix binge-watcher, for example, you'll burn through a lot more data than if you're only intermittently checking email every couple of hours.
What does an average user need?
So what's "average" in this context? The average Australian mobile phone handset internet subscriber used around 630MB of data per month in 2014, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). That means you'd want at least 500MB per month on your plan as a bare minimum, and 1GB would be a safer choice.
It's also worth considering that most plans run for a couple of years, and these figures are only trending upwards. In 2013 the average monthly usage figure was around 250MB per month and in 2012 it was only around 200MB per month. So if you're signing up for a mobile contract now based on those figures, it's reasonable to suggest that your future needs may be substantially higher by the time your contract actually runs out, and you should choose a higher figure.
How can I check how much data I'm using?
One obvious way to determine how much data you need is to look at how much data you're already using. If you're still stuck on a plain old feature phone there's nothing you can really check, unless you're tethering your phone to use as a simple 3G modem. For smartphone users, however, the tools to track your ongoing data usage are already baked into your phone, or can be easily added.
Most telcos provide tracking tools to give you an ongoing figure, either via a mobile website, or increasingly via a specific app for your smartphone. The one issue to be aware of here is that they're often slow in updating your data usage, sometimes by as much as 24 hours.
If you're using an iPhone, head to Settings>Mobile and scroll down to check your mobile data usage for the current usage period, as well as how much data each app has used over that time period. If you're an Android user, the same data usage can be found by going to Settings>Data Usage. Windows Phone users have an app that handles data usage called Data Sense that allows you to enter your existing data plan provisions and then see your current mobile and Wi-Fi data usage.
It's quite likely that your usage will vary over time, so the larger the amount of usage data you can draw on, the more realistic picture of your ongoing data needs you're going to be able to produce. Even if you've only got a small sample, however, extrapolating out for a full month and giving yourself a small buffer to cover for times when you might use more data than you expected can be a useful guideline.
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How much data do Australian telcos provide?
Given that 650MB average, any plan under 500MB is unlikely to be worth your time. Most carriers tend to agree with that picture, with only the absolutely lowest-cost entry level plans offering less than 500MB. These plans are OK if you're more of a calls and text user, but excess data usage charges can quickly add up.
The current trend for mid-tier plans costing around $50 per month is to offer between 10GB and 30GB of data. Based on that average figure, that should be easily enough for most users, although again heavy download usage such as video streaming can blow that out.
If you pay $70 a month or more, you can expect to get between 40GB and 100GB of data, although it's important to note that some of these larger plans only include a slower 3G connection instead of 4G.
That's more likely to suit if your mobile is your only Internet connection point, or you do a significant quantity of data heavy activity such as high bitrate music streaming or moderate standard definition video watching.
Picture: Jamie McAffrey, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (image cropped)