Smartphones and Data Usage: A love story

Smartphones and Data Usage: A love story
Over the past decade, we've seen the continual evolution of smartphones. From their early days of being simple PDAs (personal digital assistants) that was dominated mostly by Windows Mobile and BlackBerry, through today where iPhones and Android devices are everywhere; it would seem like almost everyone is using a smartphone.

But in order to make the most of of using a smartphone, it must be connected to a data network of some kind. Enter the wireless providers.

The big four in the U.S. are AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Up until recently, customers have enjoyed unlimited data and no speed throttling, while being charged a fair-market price. The downside was that smartphones were still using the slower 3G networks. Not only that, but with an ever-increasing number of new smartphones being activated every month, the wireless providers started to get overwhelmed by data usage that would slow things down even more - or even cause data outages.

So what's the solution? Most people think "Just build more towers". While that does help, it doesn't solve the problem on its own. It turns out it's much more complicated.

The initial step that carriers took were to first start to build-up a 4G network, such as LTE and WiMAX. This would allow 4G smartphones to have faster data downloads and free-up bandwidth on the wireless provider's 3G networks. But as you know, this is a work-in-progress, and 4G is usually only offered in major metropolitan areas.

Over the past year, according to Nielsen Ratings, the average smartphone user has gone from consuming 230MB to 435MB per month, an increase of 89%. Though the top 10% of users (90th percentile) has increased their data consumption by 109%, while the very-top 1% of users (99th percentile) have gone from using 1.8GB per month in Q1 2010 to over 4.6GB per month in the first quarter of this year.

Most of this increase in data has come from users of Apple's iPhone and Google's Android smartphones. The average iPhone user will consume 492MB per month, while the average Android user will consume 582MB per month. Even though this isn't very much for the average smartphone user, you still have those "top tier" users that consume Gigs of data, and are using more each month because of them being on unlimited data plans.

The way AT&T and Verizon have decided to solve this is by using Tiered Data plans. If you look at the first Nielsen chart above, you will see that most people are under the 2GB per month usage mark. Because of this, AT&T offers a basic 200MB/month plan for $15 and a standard 2GB/month plan for $25, which also has a $10 charge for each additional 1GB that a customer goes over. Verizon's new tiered data plans start at 2GB/month for $30 (which is what their Unlimited data plan use to cost), but there is also the option to choose 5GB/month for $50 and 10GB/month for $80; though all of them will charge you $10 for each 1GB extra that you use. Both AT&T and Verizon allowed their current customers with unlimited data on their smartphone to keep that plan, without requiring them to change to the tiered plans, though we have learned that AT&T is going to start throttling (slowing) the speeds for their top 5% of data users that were grandfathered in with their unlimited data plan. Some Verizon customers with unlimited smartphone data plans have also experienced throttling as well. There is no official amount given by Verizon to say at which GB usage point they throttle speeds, but we've heard that it can start around 6-9GB of monthly usage. Though it is hard to tell, as some customers say they've used over that amount and have not noticed any slower speeds.

T-Mobile's approach is a bit different, as they offer a total of four unlimited data plans. For $10/month you get the first 200MB at their fastest speeds, and after that the speeds are throttled down slower. The same thing goes for their $20/month plan with 2GB of fast speed, $30 for 5GB, and $60 for 10GB of fast speed. Once you go over that amount of fast speed usage, they simply slow your speed down, though it is still unlimited. Sprint still chargers a flat $30 for its unlimited data plan with no overages or speed throttling, though if you are a new customer looking to buy a smartphone with them, you have to go with their "Everything Data" plan, which starts at $69/month for 450 voice minutes, unlimited data and unlimited messaging, or the "Simply Everything" plan that is $99/month for unlimited voice, data and messaging.

As you can see, there are some clear differences between the four wireless providers in the way they charge for smartphone data, and each one wants you to think they are the "best", but the best thing for most consumers is to watch their data usage - especially if you are on a tiered plan. If you are paying for 2GB of data, try to use that amount or less. If you know you are going to use more data, then go with the higher tiered plan, or maybe think about changing to T-Mobile or Sprint, as both are unlimited. It is unclear what the future may bring in regards to data plans, but with the usage on the rise each year, and services like Netflix and Blockbuster offering movie streaming to smartphones, it may not take long at all until the average user is well over the current 2GB mark and paying even more for data each month.

source: Nielsen (data and images)

How much data do you use on your smartphone in a month?

Under 1GB
Over 10GB



2. The_Miz

Posts: 1496; Member since: Apr 06, 2011

Android phones are data hogs

3. The_Zim unregistered

Idiot statement. Every & all smartphones are data hogs. Hence the $30/mon fee for iPhones, Blackberry & Windows phones alike. It's up to the individual how much data they "hog". For example, I have an Android powered by a 1GHz processor, & while I stream music for a at least 4-6 hours of my 8 hour workday, at least 3 times a week, I still don't go over 2 - 2.5 GB of data per month (and no, I don't have wifi at work). How? I don't have auto-sync running & only turn on wifi or mobile network when I need to use it. So this saves me huge in terms of data, & also battery life.

23. box unregistered

Technically a Blackberry or Windows Mobile 6.5 or Symbian phone will use less data because of the way it's designed, and since it uses the mobile web page views, rather than the closer-to-desktop experience of a WindowsPhone7 or Android, especially with Flash enabled. iPhones 3rd-gen and later are notorious data hogs on their own, as they're designed to constantly update everything, rather than just e-mail or just RSS feeds (typically) like the 3 systems I mentioned first.

11. the icrap destroyer unregistered

iphone 4=limited data....dont believe me ask at&t and god you have a small brain.

12. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

thats because we can video call, netflix,youtube, and do anything else over carrier internet where the iphone has artificial blocks in place to force u to use WiFi which doesnt count against carrier data. More than likely things are about the same. How is life tethered to wifi? :)

16. gaby1451

Posts: 119; Member since: Mar 30, 2011

I'm not sure what you mean, Are you saying iPhone owners can't "video call, Netflix, YouTube and do anything else" without being on a WiFi network?

30. 1337 Man unregistered

Its just video calling. Unless you want to actually go over your data cap with AT&****ingT or Verizon.

14. corporateJP

Posts: 2458; Member since: Nov 28, 2009

Miz...have you had sex with your iPhone yet today?

21. wassup

Posts: 565; Member since: Jun 23, 2011

umm i'm pretty sure Androids are not to blame. i mean look at what happened to Verizon after getting the iCrap? tiered data plans. The only reason Sprint has true unlimited is because... they don't sell iFeaturePhone. so to conclude, iFeaturePhones (aka iCrap) are data hounds. *gets off soapbox*

27. The_Miz

Posts: 1496; Member since: Apr 06, 2011

Nope, blame it on Android phones hogging the data, with their feature rich features and the fact that they can tether and eat data up faster than a fat kid on cake.

32. wassup

Posts: 565; Member since: Jun 23, 2011

lol verizon didn't seem to be having a problem with their network, but now since iCrap 4 was released, tiered data plans. Same thing on At&T. T-mo and Sprint are the only ones offering unlimited( tho T-mo throttles your speed down) Miz, accept it, your iOS is a data hog, and will continue to be. I rarely go over a GB a month, probably because i have a home Wi-Fi system, and even with that, i can video call and use youtube outside a WLAN network. you can't

28. The_Miz

Posts: 1496; Member since: Apr 06, 2011

Nope, just your sister.

29. corporateJP

Posts: 2458; Member since: Nov 28, 2009

I don't have a sister. Just further proof that you do no research before you open your mouth.

25. The_Miz

Posts: 1496; Member since: Apr 06, 2011

Lol, 12 people must be bitter at the truth. It's a proven fact that Android phones are data hogs. They eat more data than a hungry fat kid at a buffet.

34. the icrap destroyer unregistered

hey miz dont compare your horrible eating habits to an OS that has clearly surpassed the IOS...geez man you really are dumb, how bout you take your time away from that cake that you obviously havent figured out how to swallow, and actually do some research then make the same argument you so passionately tried to compare to yourself and your eating habits....are you crying yet?. Itroll P.S. Iphone 4= limited data plan, dont believe me ask at&t and verizon

4. Jixe unregistered

With iCloud and FaceTime 3G coming, it's now more important to closely watch your 3G data usage. Users need an app like DataMan Pro that can track 3G and WiFi usage in real time and give automated usage alerts in the background. So while you are watching YouTube, listening to Spotify, calling FaceTime, or whatever, you can get alerted the moment you exceed your usage thresholds.

5. dandirk

Posts: 187; Member since: Aug 04, 2011

Personally I like tiered plans, it is a definable service. If you go over you get throttled/charged. Its easy to shop for the best price if you want etc. Interesting statistics on usage. Though their suggestion to monitor usage then get higher plans if needed is somewhat obvious but can also be foolish. Look at Verizons offerings... It isn't actually worth upgrading from a 2GB plan until you consistently use 8+GB a month. The price is the same $10/GB (same as the overage charge) until you use 8GB at which point you pay $80 for 10GB... At least with Verizon they also are not allowing multiple devices use the same pool of paid data. At least not that I know of. I would probably expand my internet services and devices if they did. But I am not willing to pay $30 per phone/tablet for 2GB when as the study says they will on average use only 1/2 GB per month... That is a lot of wasted service.

10. VerizonGuy123 unregistered

Once account level pricing launches at Verizon then you will be able to share data between all your lines :)

6. RJ unregistered

The Miz.....why do you make love with your IPHONE and clean your A** with an IPAD...jejejeje. Apple Fan IDIOT. The next time post some serious information and don't be a child!

26. The_Miz

Posts: 1496; Member since: Apr 06, 2011

Lol, learn some decent English first before you try and take a shot at me, cowboy.

7. android_sucks

Posts: 111; Member since: Jul 28, 2011

From my experience, I have noticed that my android device uses more data than my iphone. Eventhough I am always on my iphone playing games and watching youtube vids. A task killer is necessary with android. It should come pre-installed!!! ANDROID SUCKS!!!! TRUTH!!!! PUT THAT IN YOUR PIPE AND SMOKE IT ANDROID-DRONES!!!!

13. koutrelakos

Posts: 30; Member since: Mar 17, 2010

A task killer DOES come preinstalled on Android 2.2+. It's just not an app of any kind, it's built in. Stop spreading mindless drivel when you, yourself, are uninformed. I love Android and iOS because they're both incredibly intuitive. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

33. wassup

Posts: 565; Member since: Jun 23, 2011

umm of course you'll have lower data usage, because you can't video-chat or youtube without Wi-Fi.... dumass. p.s iOS_Sucks :D

8. AnnDroid

Posts: 90; Member since: Aug 02, 2011

Carriers are sitting on bandwidth creating an artificial shortage. They have more than enough, but love to leave us squabbling over who ate the donut. I wouldn't mind tiered plans if they were appropriate charges. $80 for 10GB is insane. Remember when we used to pay 20 cents for every text?

17. gaby1451

Posts: 119; Member since: Mar 30, 2011

I remember when I used to pay .10 for every text outgoing, and free for incoming! How times have changed...

9. PeterIfromsweden

Posts: 1230; Member since: Aug 03, 2011

i have a samsung wave with bada. I never surf on my phone or watch youtube. But this month ive used about 2 gb data. How ? I download apps from samsungapps : )

15. corporateJP

Posts: 2458; Member since: Nov 28, 2009

Tiered data is a work. Love how all these big carriers are claiming there's not enough space or bandwidth on the networks, yet they are pushing everyone into smartphones, including your eighty-four-year-old grandma. Data is thin-air, it's already up there, your phone is just grabbing some of it. F' what you's a shameless money-grab once again on the parts of a few carriers.

18. Tmachaveli

Posts: 425; Member since: Apr 01, 2011

so ppl like the miz are so dumb its up to u on how u use your data on your phone..but i don't have to worry i got unlimited hahaha ...and for the other troll u must have been smoking to say that dumb azz statement smoke on that

19. D.O. unregistered

All smartphones are data hogs....except Blackberry. They process data with their Datasmart feature which compresses data so much isn't being used compared to others

20. TechnoAsian unregistered

How is it possible to use 10GB of mobile web and data?! o.O A person gotta be on their smartphones a good part of their days for a month watching youtube videos and browsing on difficult sites. The most data I have used in a month is 1.5gb and thats with sorta heavy web browsing.

Latest Stories

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers at or use the Reprints & Permissions tool that appears at the bottom of each web page. Visit for samples and additional information.