Smartphone data usage

Avoid bill shock with our data usage guide.
Learn more

01 .Smartphone data usage

Smartphone mobile internet plans have come under fire lately because of exorbitant excess data usage charges. Some people have suffered “bill shock” when they discover their bill runs into the hundreds, or even thousands, because of excess mobile internet usage charges.

If you haven’t used the web on a phone before, or even if you’re a regular user, it can be hard to know exactly how much data you need each month. And it can be difficult when you’re shopping for a new smartphone to choose the most suitable data plan. Ideally you don’t want to pay for more than you need, but at the same time not opt for a plan that ends up with your own “bill shock”. The size of your data plan will obviously depend on the online services you use.

What is mobile internet?

Mobile internet is the ability to browse the net using a smartphone via (preferably) 3G, or even the much slower GPRS. A mobile internet plan is separate to the cost of phone calls with smartphone plans. The internet plans are capped and when you exceed the cap, you are penalised with an additional cost. The amount of data you use when web browsing, viewing online videos, downloading files and sending emails can exceed your quota if you’re not careful, and the cost you are charged per megabyte for data used above your cap is expensive. 

A data plan is not a phone plan

Mobile internet plans are divided up into different caps, such as 250MB, 500MB or 1GB. If you’re familiar with internet plans, these numbers will make some sense, but if you’re not, the terminology may seem foreign and you might be tempted to just opt for the cheapest plan with the smallest quota. But if you intend to use the mobile internet service daily, it might end up being cheaper to pay for a higher plan upfront as this will be far better value than paying excess usage charges.

Some mobile phone companies provide data calculators. Vodafone's MB Usage Calculator allows you to enter the number of web pages, emails and so on, so you can find out approximate data usage.

Optus also lists the number of pages, emails and so on that can be used for each data usage limit. The guide can be found here.

Subscribe to CHOICE Computer

Sign up to our free

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

The table below shows some usage scenarios to help you understand how much data you’re likely to use for common activities such as browsing and watching online video.

The breakdown of the scenarios includes two different news sites reading three news stories on each site, an online auction site, receiving and sending three emails from a webmail account, watching a video and finding a location using Google maps. Everyone’s usage is different, but this should give you a good idea and a base to start from.


The light usage scenario would add up to around 150 MB per month, so you want to choose a plan of about 200-250MB if you only plan to view a few news sites and send a few emails each day.

The medium usage scenario assumes viewing the same regular news sites and eBay browsing as the light scenario, but doubles the number of emails sent and received and adds watching a YouTube video and doing one search with Google Maps. This comes out at about 11MB per day, so you’d be looking at a plan with a cap around 400-500MB per month to be sure.

A heavy user in our scenario could double all of the above, but view three YouTube videos and do four Google Map searches to peak at around 28MB per day. With this usage, you’d probably be safest going for a 1GB data plan to avoid excess charges.

To help save on data, you can sometimes browse a web-optimised version of a site. It usually has a different URL (such as, the Sydney Morning Herald’s mobile site) and the differences in data usage can be significant. Note that some websites can detect if you are using a smartphone and will load the web-optimised site automatically, but otherwise look for a link to the “mobile” version on the site.

The bottom line is, you can see from these figures that plans with a tiny quota are probably best avoided if you use the internet on your phone even lightly, as you will likely end up paying more in excess usage charges than upgrading to a higher plan.

Data plan

  • Use mobile-optimised websites to reduce the amount of data transfered when browsing.
  • If the phone has Wi-Fi, look for free hot spots to browse the net.
  • Set up a home Wi-Fi network to use your home internet via the smartphone.
  • Check the usage monitor on the provider’s website regularly. fees
  • Download and upload large files to and from the smartphone using a USB link to a computer.
  • Check email via a webmail interface and delete large attachments (such as funny videos/pictures) from friends before downloading them to your phone.

Did you know?

Before you sign up for a two-year contact that could cost you upwards of $2500 for a handset, phone plan and internet plan, you need to check the data quota. In general, smartphone data quotas will include both downloads and uploads. In this case, all the web pages you visit and files you download as well as emails (and attachments) you send out will count towards your monthly limit.


Beware “roaming data” charges. Accessing the internet via email or web browsing when attached to another provider’s network (roaming) may add an unexpected and hefty bill on top of your existing plan cost, even if you’re well within your data plan’s capacity. Check your phone plan conditions carefully.

A Premium rip-off

CHOICE has been campaigning for some time on the problems with mobile premium services. These services sell subscriptions to games, ring tones and other content, but they’re expensive and often include an automatic subscription that can be hard to get out of. The industry has set up the website, which has details of service providers to make it easier to cancel a subscription. CHOICE would like to see consumers given the right to bar these services from their account, a double opt-in system with two messages before a subscription begins and no advertising of premium services during children’s television.

Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments