What Exactly Is Internet Data and Data Usage?

Everything you do on the Internet uses data. If you're on a limited data plan, you don't want to run over the amount you've bought, but you don't want to spend more than you have to. It's sometimes surprising which things need a lot of data and which don't. Knowing the difference helps in choosing the best plan.

Data consumption is different from speed. If you have a fast connection, that doesn't necessarily mean you use a lot of data per month. However, services like video streaming adapt to the available speed, so having a fast connection often does increase your data usage (and video quality), even if your habits don't change.

A little terminology: when you see MB or GB, with a capital B, that means megabytes or gigabytes respectively. Mb or Gb refers to megabits or gigabits. Data speeds are usually given in bit units, data consumption in byte units. Confusing the two will throw you off by a factor of 8.

The big data consumers

Some Internet activities are notorious for using lots of data. If you want to limit your usage, you need to watch how much you use them. Streaming video accounts like Netflix let you set preferences if you want to keep your usage down rather than get the highest possible quality.

  • System upgrades. They require huge amounts of data. Upgrading to Windows 10 can run you about 4 GB, and that's not counting other software you have to upgrade along with it. Fortunately, you don't have to do them very often. You may be able to get a system DVD to save a large and time-consuming download.
  • Other large software downloads. Not only system software but some applications can take a lot of data capacity to download. Games with lots of built-in graphics and video are some of the worst.
  • Streaming video. The data consumption will depend on the quality of the video you receive. If you have a slow connection, most providers will adjust the quality so you won't have to pause for buffering too often. High-definition video can run as high in bandwidth consumption as 8 megabits (1 megabyte) a second. That's 60 megabytes a minute, if your connection is fast enough to handle it. A two-hour movie, at that rate, will consume 7.2 gigabytes. That's an upper bound, and usually it will be less, but a feature movie is a lot of data no matter what.
  • Video uploads and downloads. If you download a movie rather than streaming it, or if you upload one to YouTube or Vimeo, the data consumption is similar, and it's always based on the full quality of the movie. If you make a video on your phone, you probably aren't creating HD quality or running for hours. Still, if you upload a lot, it will add up.

Lighter consumption

Other uses of the Internet don't require quite as much data.

  • Phone calls and videoconferencing. Voice calls don't need as much data as you might think. They typically use 150 to 400 KB per minute. Video conferencing has higher requirements, but it's usually heavily compressed, so it's not like streaming a superhero movie. It might run as much as 4 MB per minute.
  • Games. While downloading a game can consume a lot of data, playing online requires surprisingly little. The providers want to keep play lively, so they optimize their games to not require a lot of data transfer during the action.
  • Email, Web browsing, and social media. These don't require huge amounts of data as long as you're just dealing in text and pictures. It's possible to run up a lot of data downloading files and sending huge attachments, but it takes some work. If you watch a lot of videos on social media, that can run up your total, but they usually aren't long or extremely high resolution.
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