Understanding data: bytes, bits and generations

Lets go back to the basics and get some key terms right before talking about digital data used in everyday life. For many these terms and questions are already familiar but often they tend to get people confused.

  • How much data do I use and need?
  • What is the difference between megabyte and megabit?
  • What is 3G, 4G, HSPA or LTE?
  • Can my actions have an effect on how much data I consume?

We are used to have the internet connection available 24/7 in our mobile phones, tablets and laptops. An average user, like me, is hanging online more and more. I need the internet for work, for running my errands and more often than not, just for entertainment. It’s common to have data subscription for your mobile devices, broadband access at home and a connection provided by your office. When the above-mentioned are unavailable you might connect to a public Wi-Fi while on the go. Normally you would just open the browser and let the data flow, and not have to think about it really.

Well, actually there are moments when you’re forced to give it a thought, like when choosing a data plan for your mobile phone or broadband for your home. Or when you’re heading abroad. Once the word “roaming” pops up, we all tend to wince a bit. I’ve been spooked and warned about roaming so many times that the roaming tab in my devices always stays turned off for the whole trip. Especially when there’s insecurity with how much data a quick peek of an email or a map application gobbles up. Only few of us are in the place where they don’t have to be afraid of surprise roaming bills. The rest of us just need to act more cautious on our journeys, like these unfortunate travellers surely will from now on.

I dare to say that our lives used to be somehow easier when our friends, work and life weren’t in applications and in cloud services. It might sound a bit drastic, but think about your email, calendar, online banking, social media apps, workout diary or Spotify for instance. We’re so used to being connected that without the internet it feels almost like being paralyzed.

How much data do I use and need?

byte_bit_generation

It’s hard to estimate our overall data usage if we use both Wi-Fi and cellular connection with several devices. The chart below shows a breakdown on the typical connectivity sources. How does your chart look like? Are you mostly using the internet connected to the office WLAN, to home broadband or to mobile internet? The chart would probably look rather different if you’d have for example a mobile office and you would work and travel at the same time. Then you would probably use your mobile devices constantly over cellular data.

internet_connections

It was recently discovered that an average surfer uses 3.5 gigabytes of mobile data per month. Finland takes the lead when it comes to mobile data usage, beating USA, South Korea and Japan. After a quick scan through my phone bills, it seems that I’m one of the average Finnish surfers using 2 to 4 GB of data per month with mobile devices while not connected to the WLAN at work or at home. This includes mostly the basic web browsing, using few apps and streaming music. It’s easy to check your mobile data consumption if your operator gives you a monthly usage information in your invoice or in application.

A completely different story is, how much data you use when connected to Wi-Fi. There are plenty of tools and calculators to estimate the data consumption related to your everyday activities. Calculators give pretty different results though. That’s because there are a lot of factors affecting on how much data is needed for preforming the same activity, for example the device or connection type you’re using.

We have talked about data consumption in one of our previous posts. Here’s another summary that takes into account the speed when estimating your average usage. For smartphones data consumption could be a bit less.

data_consumption_chart

While studying my phone bills I found an interesting change in my data usage. There was a surprising peak in consumption when I had used 8 GB during one summer month. That was the month when I travelled abroad for a holiday road trip. It’s quite evident that the biggest data gobblers were online map apps, route trackers, downloadable tourist guides, internet-tv and Youtube videos. This made me realize that shockingly I’m actually more dependent on the internet, and especially on mobile data, while traveling. On a road trip it’s just so much more comfortable to use your own mobile internet connection than choosing your route depending on public Wi-Fi locations for example in cafes and hotels.

Now, you might be interested to know how was the bill shock after the trip. I was lucky to have my Goodspeed hotspot with me, so I didn’t need to worry about the roaming charges or data consumption for that matter.

If you need a very rough estimate of how much your daily data consumption could be while on the go, here’s something that might help you. We here at Uros have discovered that people use roughly 300 MB of data per day while travelling abroad.

Can my actions have an effect on how much data I consume?

  • What connection type am I using e.g. 3G, HSPA, 4G, LTE?
  • How strong or weak my network signal is?
  • Is the network I’m using crowded?
  • With what device am I using the internet?
  • Am I sharing the internet with multiple devices?

Some of these factors you can influence on and some you can’t – other than by closing the internet for good. 3G (third generation) and 4G (fourth generation) are basically about the speed of the internet connection. It means the capacity of the signal to transmit data. 3G and 4G are problematic to define because they are very wide terms that cover various technologies. For example LTE and HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) aka 3.5G are both 4G technologies, but LTE wins HSPA 100-0 in uploading speed i.e. putting something to the internet. Then there are several different ways to provide LTE. Ok, you got the point. No need to go any further.

Common internet surfer only needs to know that 3G means theoretically at least 0,2 Mbit/s and at best about 15 Mbit/s speed. 4G technologies can carry everything between 100 Mbit/s to 1Gbit/s. Well, in reality the range of data transmission is much lower than the theoretic values. The optimal maximum speed is reached only if you are the only user in the network at hand. The number of other users on the same network, weather conditions and other obstacles on the way to base station may affect on the speed available. As do the features of the mobile devices used, like more efficient smartphones, tablets and internet dongles. Some devices are more data-hungry than others. The speed of data affects directly to the amount of data used as we can observe from the chart in our previous post. Tethering with your smartphone, or another words sharing the internet connection, with your mobile hotspot also increases the total amount of data used.

So, what did we learn?

Estimating your data usage is essential when compairing mobile data tariffs. It also comes in handy if you’re travelling abroad and plan on using the internet. Of course it’s not simple task. Generally, if you mostly browse the web with your mobile phone, send emails and use few apps, you would probably need about 1 GB of mobile data per month. If you also stream lots of videos and music and upload massive photos, you would need an average 3.5 GB or more. And that’s only the mobile data used.

How much data do you need while abroad depends on what you do. There’s no simple fist rule. For light users with simple tasks it might be around 100 MB per day and for serious surfers and business travellers up to 600 MB a day. According to Goodspeed users the average is around 300 MB per travelling day.

To avoid any unpleasant surprises it’s good to remember a few facts. If you want to reduce mobile data consumption, I would suggest you to use a Wi-Fi connection whenever possible, secure Wi-Fi connection of course. And always download application updates before leaving home country! I learned that when a software update gobbled some 900 megabytes in only 30 minutes without me even noticing it.

-Mari @Uros