What is a broadband data usage allowance?

When you’re looking for a new broadband deal, one of the big considerations is your data usage. Are you happy with a fixed data allowance or would a plan with unlimited data be a better fit? This guide will help you decide.

When you’re looking for a new broadband deal, one of the big considerations is your data usage. Are you happy with a fixed data allowance or would a plan with unlimited data be a better fit? This guide will help you decide.

Holly Niblett
From the Digital team
4
minute read
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Posted 24 MAY 2021

What is a data allowance?

Your data allowance is the maximum amount of data you can use each month without being charged extra, based on the terms of your plan.

Broadband providers offer a range of packages to suit different levels of data usage, starting from as little as 10GB (gigabytes) a month.

To put this in context, below are some standard online activities together with a very rough estimate of the data required to do them:

Activity Data used
1hr of web browsing  10-25 MB
1hr on social media  20 MB
Making a 1hr video call 350 MB
Streaming 1hr of online gaming  43 MB
Streaming 1hr of music or radio  150 MB
Streaming 30mins of YouTube videos 175 MB
Streaming 1hr of BBC iPlayer in SD 144 MB
Streaming 1hr of Netflix in SD 1 GB
Streaming 1hr of Netflix in HD 3 GB
Streaming 1hr of Netflix in 4K 7 GB
Downloading a music track 4-8 MB 
Downloading an SD film 700 MB to 1 GB 
Downloading an HD film 4 GB


There are just over 1,000 megabytes (MB) in one gigabyte.

Broadly speaking, if you’re a household with heavy internet usage including movie and music streaming, any allowance might soon get used up.

And it’s not just laptops, mobiles and tablets that will push you to your data limits. Almost two-thirds of households now have their TV connected to the internet, allowing them to watch catch-up TV or use video-on-demand services like Netflix.

In these circumstances, particularly if the internet is running on multiple devices, an unlimited package might be worth considering.

What’s an unlimited data package?

To feed our data-hungry lifestyles, most broadband providers now offer unlimited downloads and no data caps. This is the case for all the broadband deals available via Compare the Market. It means you won’t need to monitor your data usage and you’re unlikely to get any nasty surprises when your bill comes through.

There are two different types of unlimited broadband packages, known as standard unlimited and truly/totally unlimited. With either one, you’ll be free from set usage limits, but with standard unlimited packages there could be other restrictions, like traffic management and fair use/fair usage policies:

Traffic management – This regulates the flow of internet traffic through the broadband network, distributing the available bandwidth fairly between web users. It can mean download speeds slow down at certain times of the day, usually during the peak hours of late afternoon and evening. If you spend a lot of time using the internet, this could be frustrating. The purpose of traffic management is to improve the quality of the service.

Fair usage policies – These conditions usually focus on internet users who take up a disproportionate amount of bandwidth. They may find their connection or download speed limited as a result.

However, a broadband package advertised as truly or totally unlimited will be free of any limitations or restrictions. This is in accordance with rules laid out by the Advertising Standards Authority, the UK's independent advertising regulator.

Frequently asked questions

How is data usage measured?

From video calls to online gaming, everything you do online counts towards your monthly total data usage. This includes everything you send or upload to the internet, like photos on social media, and everything you download from the internet, like music, audio and video files.

Whether your online life is super busy, or you prefer to keep screen time to a minimum, you need a broadband package that fits the bill – and that means one with a data allowance that comfortably covers whatever your usage is.

Data is measured in megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB). There are just over 1,000MB in 1GB. Downloading a film in high definition may take about 4GB of data or even more.

What are typical data limits?

Data limits vary depending on the provider and the packages on offer. Monthly allowances for home broadband use can vary from 10GB per month, to unlimited usage.

What are the advantages of having a data limit?

For budget-conscious users who don’t spend hours online, opting for a broadband package with a cap on data usage is usually cheaper than the unlimited alternatives.

And for a relatively small number of people, having a data allowance is the only option due to where they live and the providers operating in their area.

What happens if I exceed my data usage limits?

If you go over your limit, two things could happen:

  • You may need to pay more: The most likely outcome is that you’ll be charged extra for each GB (or part GB) of data that you use above your allowance. You may get a warning email or text to let you know you’re close to, or over, your limit but it depends on the provider.
  • Bandwidth throttling: Your internet provider may reduce the speed of your connection or limit your bandwidth, making all but the most basic of browsing virtually impossible. 

Some internet providers allow you to monitor your data usage through an app or online account, so you can keep an eye on how much of your allowance you’ve got left.

If you frequently go over your data limit, you might want to think about switching packages.

How much data do I need?

Once you know how much data you’re using, it’s easy to work out the data allowance you need and choose the broadband deal that’s right for you.

Type of user Monthly limit needed
Light 10 GB
Frequent 25 GB
Heavy 50 GB
Very heavy 100 GB

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