Questions to Carriers: Why aren't data usage calculators helpful?

As more and more of us transition to internet-capable mobile devices, we look for mobile plans that transition with us too. Rather than worrying about voice minute and SMS message allotments, we are worried about understanding our data usage. While carriers move away from unlimited data plans, as consumers, we try to determine the most data we need at the lowest price.

But in a world focused around mobility, we also realize our data usage changes frequently. Sometimes we are stuck in the office connected to wifi for the majority of the month. Other months we are traveling, using data to get directions, sharing photos and staying up-to-date. Even more frequently we may stream a Youtube video, a Netflix show or download new music, forgetting which internet-driven actions eat-up the most data.

While most carriers offer “tools” to help us estimate our data usage, the results they return are no more helpful than their homepages that proclaim “We have the perfect plan for your lifestyle”. And when you look at carrier's “data calculators” you see different metrics for different internet habits, making the usage estimates even more vague.

Plan Comparison: Data Calculators

Below we take a look at the different usage types AT&T, Verizon and
T-Mobile use to estimate data:

AT&T (per month)
  • emails sent/received with attachments
  • hours of music streaming, surfing the Internet and video watching
  • posts to social media that include photos
  • downloads of apps, games and/or music
T-Mobile (per day)
  • minutes streaming videos or playing online games
  • pages browsed on the Internet
  • emails sent/received
  • photos posted to social media
  • trips that utilize turn-by-turn navigation
  • downloads of apps, games, and/or music
Verizon (per day or month)
  • emails (text-only) sent/received
  • web pages visited
  • minutes streaming or downloading music
  • minutes streaming videos - connected to 3G vs connected to 4G
  • minutes video chatting while on average or high-speed connection
  • photos uploaded or downloaded
  • minutes using turn-by-turn navigation

As you can see, these calculators don’t make the task of determining internet usage thaaat much easier. Carriers ask us to estimate different types of usage, that they group together, and some ask for estimates per month while others ask per day.

It’s confusing! So we conducted an experiment.

Using three of the US’s most popular carriers, we compared the same general usage in all of the overlapping categories--we excluded navigation and video chatting because not all three carriers used these internet usages in their data calculator.

To estimate data usage on each carrier’s tool we used the following metrics, based on monthly use:

  • 15 hours of video streaming
  • 750 web pages visited
  • 60 posts to social media w/ a photo
  • 30 downloads of apps, games and/or songs
  • 750 emails sent/received

What we hoped was all three carriers returned about the same data usage estimates. What we found was the contrary.

carrier data calculator comparison

That's a lot of variation.... Carriers try to market these “tools” as solutions to estimate our data usage, but from the inconsistencies between carriers, it’s clear they aren’t so helpful.

Don’t waste your time guessing how many web pages you browse or pictures you post. We know it changes all the time. Instead, start tracking your own data usage. Tune back into Questions to Carriers next week and we will teach you better ways to estimate.