What Is a Cell Phone Data Plan?

by David Lipscomb Google

    Modern cell phone data plans encompass more than just text. Internet browsing, music streaming and GPS functionality all rely on data access. Without the right plan, you may be shocked by your cellular charges at the end of each month. Unique to each carrier, data plans are chosen by usage amount, calculated in gigabytes. Choosing the right plan is critical to keeping the information flowing to your smartphone without breaking your budget.

    Staying Connected

    Checking the latest sports score, finding your way to the nearest watering hole or simply checking your email are all functions of data sent to your cell phone. Cellular data plans allow you to gather information from the Internet without the benefit of a Wi-Fi connection. Modern 4G cellular services offer blazing speed that very likely makes your wireless Internet connection at home look slow. Smartphones make it possible for you to do the majority of quick Web browsing tasks from your phone instead of finding a computer, keeping you connected on a business trip or at the park.

    Real Numbers

    Prior to choosing a plan, it's important to think about your intended use for the phone. If you're primarily using the device to check your personal or work email, you shouldn't have any problem staying under 100MB per month, well within most lower-cost plans. If you're a heavy Internet user, that total might spike to well over ten times that, making for a potentially expensive monthly rate. Most smartphones have built-in or third-party apps that allow you to track the amount of data you've used, reducing the chances of a nasty surprise when your bill comes. In essence, text-based content takes up relatively small amounts of data. However, tagging pictures onto text messages or social media sites dramatically ups the data ante. According to data from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the average user spent about $80 per month in data fees in 2011, representing a cross-section of those that employ their plans for basic services ranging to data-intensive users.

    Multimedia

    Multimedia streaming from music and movies increases data use to the point where failing to keep track will surely launch you into high-use territory. For example, streaming music services in use for much of the day will place your data usage in the 4GB to 6GB per month range. Streaming a single full-length movie per day would total about 5GB per month. You can avoid additional charges if you perform these tasks on a Wi-Fi network rather than cellular. Remember that if you're not on an unlimited plan and you stream entertainment while roaming or in another country, your charges will accumulate very quickly.

    Things to Remember

    Some providers cap the speed of your data plan once you hit a certain pre-determined figure. This is true whether or not you have an unlimited data plan, which simply provides a cost ceiling. Depending on the type of data you access from your phone, this may or may not be important, but it's a good idea to find out what the parameters of data use are to avoid disappointment when your surfing speed drops precipitously seemingly at random. Spreading data plan cost around through a few family members helps with service bills, but remember that in many cases the amount of data is shared between users. If you have multiple users on a single account, you will have one defined data limit prior to incurring additional fees for all users combined.

    About the Author

    David Lipscomb is a professional writer and public relations practitioner. Lipscomb brings more than a decade of experience in the consumer electronics and advertising industries. Lipscomb holds a degree in public relations from Webster University.

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