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Understand data usage to get the best deal

(BPT) - When it comes to how we use our cellphones, it's especially important to understand data usage. Knowing what consumes your data, and how you use it, will help you recognize whether you’re getting the best deal on your wireless plan.

With unlimited talk and text becoming more common offerings, what most of us are really paying for on our cellphone bills is data. You're using mobile data whenever you're not connected to Wi-Fi and doing things like browsing the web, using apps, checking social media, sending or receiving picture messages, and streaming music or videos.

Here are a few important things to understand to make sure that you get the best service, at the best price, on your monthly data plan.

How it’s measured

Simply put, data usage is the amount of data you use in a billing cycle (usually a 30-day time frame). Your cellphone plan's data is used whenever you use your phone's internet connection to perform a task.

Anytime you send email, download a photo, stream video, view a web page, or post on social media, your phone is sending or receiving data across your carrier’s network. A megabyte (MB) and the larger gigabyte (GB) are the units used for measuring data. Industry analysts have found that an average cellphone user consumes about 5GB of data per month.

It’s hard to determine exactly how much data specific activities consume, since file sizes and download times can vary. To provide a general idea, it’s estimated that with 1GB of data, you can browse the Internet and use social media for around 40 minutes a day, stream about 10 hours of music in a month, and view 1-2 movies a month.

High-speed limits

With overage charges becoming nearly extinct and unlimited plans becoming more and more common, you might find yourself wondering why you should worry about your data usage at all.

When a cell phone plan has a designated monthly allotment of data, it means that you'll get optimal data speeds up until you have reached the limit. So, if your plan has a 3GB data limit, you can use up to 3GB of data at full speed. Once you go over that 3GB of data usage, you can expect to encounter slower data speeds.

With that in mind, you might expect unlimited data plans to provide you with all of the best data you can possibly use in your billing cycle. But this is not the case. Most “unlimited” data plans actually have what is referred to as a “deprioritization threshold.” This is a cap on your high-speed data, meaning that if you reach the threshold (ranging anywhere from 20GB to 50GB) during a billing cycle you will actually be subject to slower data speeds during times of heavy network congestion, just as you would with a lighter use plan.

Choosing the right plan

So, the first step in managing your data usage is being realistic about how much you really need. The best way is to track your usage through your cellphone carrier: most offer up-to-the-minute details on your data usage either online or through a mobile app.

Then, seek out a carrier who offers plans that fit what you really use. If you’re a light to moderate data user, take a look at Consumer Cellular. This 100% U.S. based carrier offers no-contract data plans from 500MB to 25GB of data per month. Since your data needs can fluctuate from one month to the next, they also let you change your plan anytime you need to without paying any additional fees.

Before you decide, read the fine print. Find out what, if any, caps are placed on your usage, or if there are fees for going over or changing your plan. By understanding your own needs and what your carrier specifically allows, you’ll have everything you need to get the data you require.

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