If you’re a teen parent, you probably fall into one of two categories; tech savvy or technically clueless. If you fall into the latter group, this article is for you. Your teen has probably vaulted over your mobile plan’s data cap and kept on going at least once and left you with a stroke-inducing phone bill. Telling them to ease up on their mobile data usage won’t do any good unless YOU understand what eats up your data plan, so let’s try to break it down.

Why mobile data usage is so expensive

The Internet is not an magical cloud made of memes, unicorn flatulence and essential oils peddlers. The Internet is a very real construct of massive server farms, subterranean cables, millions of connected devices and God knows what else. All of this takes real money to maintain and even more to expand. That’s why you have to pay real money to use it.. all the information you send and receive uses this immense network. However… don’t trust a big corporation to tell you how much you should pay to use the Internet. Once you have a basic working knowledge of mobile data usage, it puts YOU back in control.

Making sense of the jargon

So you’ve got a 20 gigabyte (GB) family data plan with four lines… sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? However if you divide that 20 by 4, you’re left with 5 GB per line. Doesn’t sound as good now, does it? Before you start thinking about a second mortgage to support your teen’s mobile data usage, look at this:

1 terabyte (TB) = 1000 (GB)
1 GB = 1000 megabytes (MB)
1000 MB = 1,024,000 kilobytes (KB)

Let’s also define a few data usage terms:

Downloadcopying a file from the Internet to your device.

Streamingplaying a file from the Internet to your device. This is how Netflix, YouTube and Internet radio typically work.

By now you’re probably thinking ummm okay… cool, but I still have no idea what’s going on. That’s a completely normal reaction for non-tech people because the chart above has no context, so let’s give it some.

Practical examples of everyday mobile data usage

Example 1: Let’s say you want to download “Stairway to Heaven” on your mobile phone. (Yes, I know your teen probably wouldn’t download this song, but since you’re paying the phone bill, you can use whatever example you like.) Stairway weighs in at 8 minutes and 2 seconds. If you haven’t changed the quality settings on your music app, the downloaded file size will be about 1 MB per minute of audio or 8 MB total. Streaming music data usage varies depending on the service, but typically tops out at 115.2 MB per hour. Even at this rate, it would take about 8 hours of listening time to use 1 GB of data.

Example 2: Now let’s download “The Empire Strikes Back”. High definition (HD) video runs about 3 GB per hour of video and “Empire” is two hours and seven minutes long. We’ve used about 6 GB to download the movie. But why have “Empire” and not the first and third movies of the original trilogy? The other two also run for two hours and change, so let’s download those as well. We’ve now used about 18.5 GB of data.

Helpful hint: Streaming audio and video uses just as much or more than downloading. Don’t make a habit of doing either unless you’re connected to WiFi.

Example 3: You just got a new phone with free cloud storage. You let the nice salesperson at your authorized dealer set everything up for you because you don’t really understand how it all works. Suppose this salesperson forgets to make sure cloud uploads only happen when you’re connected to WiFi. You take 200 pictures and each one is instantly uploaded over mobile data. High quality pics run about 3 MB each, so 200 pics X 3 MB = 600 MB. Then you shoot an hour of video weighing in around 3 GB and that also gets uploaded via mobile data. You just used 3.6 GB of your data allowance for nothing.

In conclusion: DOs and DON’Ts

DON’T download, upload, update or stream over mobile data. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • Watching Netflix, YouTube or any video streaming service. This eats up data at a rate of 1.74 to 3 GB an hour.
  • Streaming music from services like Spotify. Streaming can use up to 115 MB an hour.
  • Cloud backups – make sure your device is set to backup over WiFi only.
  • App and system updates – these updates can use a TON of data.

You should now have a good idea how data is used and what uses it. If you have any questions, feel free to use the contact form below. The next step is learning how to monitor your data usage. We’ll cover that in part 2.


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