The single most important feature in a smartphone is its always-on data connection. It's that connection, after all, that keeps you in touch with the online world all day, every day. Without it, you wouldn't be able to keep tabs on your Facebook friends throughout the day, get push email notifications or upload pictures of the world's strangest and most random things to your favorite network from virtually anywhere.
Nearly everything you do with your smartphone uses data. From downloading apps and games, tweeting and everything in between, each little action chews away at the bits and inches you closer and closer to your data allotment.
This has forced us into a dependency on mobile data, and it has forced carriers to control how much data we consume ... and how we consume it. Unlimited data plans are quickly becoming a thing of the past, and three of the major four wireless providers in the US now only offer tiered data plans. And strict policies on unauthorized tethering and hotspot use have been put into place. With Verizon, there are six data packages to choose from: 2GB, 5GB 10GB, 4GB with hotspot, 7GB with hotspot and 12GB with hotspot. AT&T only offers a 200MB or 2GB package, plus an additional 2GB with the hotspot feature. And T-Mobile offers four data options that throttle speeds after you reach your cap: 200MB, 2GB, 5GB or 10GB.
For the lucky remainder, you're either on Sprint with truly unlimited data or on a grandfathered unlimited data plan on AT&T or Verizon.
If smartphones have trained us to be good at anything – aside from being impatient and snarling when someone doesn't reply right away – it's being able to chew through mobile data faster than ever. Between watching endless videos on YouTube, streaming movies through Netflix or music from one of the hundreds of services and picture uploads, small tiered plans don't stand a chance, especially for heavy data users.
As shown in the screen cap above, MrCippy (Jason Cipriani of CNET) managed to use 16GB of data on Verizon and it resulted in his speeds being throttled. Just two years ago, data usage this high was a rarity. In fact, I remember just three years ago that using more than 400MB with my BlackBerry was a feat. But smartphones are undoubtedly more powerful and capable in today's market. Browsing the web in full and uploading an entire album of pictures of your family trip to the beach are both entirely possible, and no longer will they take a few painstaking hours to do.
Recently, I've seen people around the Web claiming to have used 10, 20 and even 30GB of mobile data in a single month. The validity of these claims are certainly questionable – I'm sure some might be stretching the truth a bit. But there are definitely people out there who know how to use a lot of data.
Most people assume that since I'm such a mobile enthusiast, that I must use outrageous amounts of data, too. Sometimes I do. But more often than not, I will connect to any available open Wi-Fi network. It has nothing to do with me using too much mobile data – I'm on an unlimited plan with Verizon, and I have no worries of data overages on T-Mobile. Wi-Fi is usually a little faster (not always true anymore) and generally consumes less power than a cell connection.
On average, I would say I use two to three gigabytes on my Verizon line (mostly streaming music and picture uploads) and here recently, I use right at 2GB of data on my T-Mobile line each month. Usually, that's a ton of mobile Web browsing, absurd amounts of Gtalk, Twitter, Netflix, more Twitter and some Facebook. I believe the most mobile data I've ever used in a month was 8GB.
To be completely honest, though, I've never kept close tabs on my usage. With an unlimited plan, there's not really much of a point. If my carriers throttle me for using too much, I should probably lay off for a while anyway. Since I have been using Ice Cream Sandwich, however, I've been keeping a pretty close watch on my usage, solely because it's quick, easy, and sort of interesting to see the breakdown of my usage.
What I don't understand, though, is how people manage to go an entire month on plans as small as 200MB. I can eat through 200MB in a couple hours without even trying. (As you can see in the picture above, I used 208MB watching Netflix. That was one 45-minute episode of Burn Notice.) That said, a close friend of mine has been using a 200MB plan on AT&T with various Android phones and an iPhone, and to my knowledge, he has only gone over once. He is constantly watching his usage and asking if he can tether off of me. Cheapskate.
Anyway, I'm curious, ladies and gents. How much data do you consume on average per month? What's the most you've ever used in a month? A day? Have tiered plans forced you to cut your usage back? Sound off and share your data usage habits in the comments below!