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Nielsen study shows smartphone users' appetite for data

How big of a dent has your smartphone left in the Internet? A new Nielsen survey suggests that it's bigger than you'd think, especially compared with a year ago.

Specifically, on average smartphone users used 298 megabytes of data a month in the first quarter of 2010, way up from 90 MB a month observed in the first quarter of 2009. But the numbers behind that average, as explained in a post on the New York market-research firm's site, are seriously unbalanced.


Nielsen's data, drawn from the monthly bills of "more than 60,000 mobile customers," describe a mix of gluttony and starvation online. "The top 6 percent of smart phone users are consuming half of all data," wrote senior vice president Roger Entner, while most people use the Web far less and would do fine with cheaper, limited data plans such as AT&T's new $15-for-200-megabytes option.

Some don't go online at all, a finding that befuddled Entner:

A quarter of these early adopters are not using their device for data services at all. They use exactly zero MB per month. For some reason these customers have purchased a miracle in engineering and technology that has more computing power than what was used to get men safely to the moon and back and yet they only use their smartphone for phone calls and text messaging.

The study also observed that "more than a third of smartphone users have not yet signed up for a data plan," which points to Nielsen's loose definition of "smartphone." (Most of the gadgets we think of in this category require buying data service.) Spokeswoman Marivi Lerdo de Tejada wrote that the company basically counts "any phone that has an actual operating system."

Fortunately, we can do our own research on this matter.

Logging into your account at your carrier's Web site should yield your current bandwidth usage so far. You may also check on your phone itself. On an iPhone, for example, open the Settings app, select its General category, then its Usage sub-category, then look under the "Cellular Network Data" heading. Android devices don't include a built-in bandwidth meter, but the free and open-source NetCounter seems to work fine.

On the iPhone 4 I just reviewed, I saw the figures in the picture above:
182 MB sent, 2.2 GB received, for a total well over the 2 GB allocation of AT&T's higher-end data plan. Now, I did put the phone through some strenuous tests, including almost seven hours of non-stop Web radio listening. But it's not hard to imagine a music fan plowing through a carrier's quota over an entire month.

Is that an extreme case? You tell me. Take a look at your own phone's data consumption, as shown on the device or in your online account, and post those numbers in the comments. For extra credit, tell me how you use your phone online and if you think you do so more or less than other people carrying the same device as you.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 30, 2010; 3:42 PM ET
Categories:  Mobile , Telecom  
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According to Sprint, I've used 245MB of data since 6/24 on my Evo. At that rate, we're looking at roughly 1.2GB for a month. This is something I'll be monitoring closely. I'm very curious to see what happens to all of the iPhone users' data usage when they start streaming Hulu Plus during their subway commutes.

Posted by: jpjayhawk | June 30, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

510 MB per month pretty consistently over a year on an iPhone 3G. Twitter (and opening Twitter links), news sites (apps and web), weather (radar), mail.

I think I use it much less than other users carrying the iPhone 3G. Some people are on all the time. I use my PC a lot so I don't need to be. I would say I am a light user. So, I am surprised it is as high as 510 a month, but I checked it again and that is right. Maybe it is all the push stuff and background processes -- whatever they are.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | June 30, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

I have 11 days left in my billing cycle with Sprint and have used almost 1.7 GB of data on my Palm Pre.
I stream MLB games using the MLB Mobile Premium service, also I listen to out-of-area radio stations (sports talk) in my car and home, as well as Slacker for music.
Tack on the web browsing and I am a heavy data user. Last month, I used a little over 3 GB of data.
I use a ton more data than other people I know.
That's why ATT's new data rates make me laugh and thank heaven that I'm with Sprint.
As more people buy the iPhone 4, they're going to want to use more data, meaning they're going to go OVER ATT's puny data limits.
2GB's a month? In a couple of years, I bet, a majority of smartphone users will go over 2 GBs and phones start using 4G networks and make video calls plus streaming sites like Hulu, and Netflix.

Posted by: patchss | July 1, 2010 1:35 AM | Report abuse

Sprint here also on my Touch Pro2 & 11 days left & I am @ 1.3 gb so far.
EVO users seem to be enjoying the most bandwidth freedom from early reports.

btw - I too laugh @ the dummies who buy a 'smartphones' & barely know what is available to them.
I guess that's why they made the iPhone + ATT for those types.

Posted by: Rocc00 | July 1, 2010 2:23 AM | Report abuse

I haven't gotten an iPhone 4 yet because AT&T and Apple have been sold out. But, I am wondering if the count started over when I upgraded to iOS 4.0. My lifetime stats read 3 days, 6 hours, same as my current period stats. Shouldn't the lifetime statistics on a two-year-old phone be higher? The phone says I have sent 1.1 GB of data, and received 5.5 GB.

June's data use was 25.2 MB according to my online account. That is down significantly from the five previous months which average about 55 MBs. The difference may be having gotten my iPad, preferred for most data. The decrease in iPhone data use when people also have iPads seems like a basis for allowing iPad Wi-Fi tethering to the iPhone to me.

Posted by: query0 | July 1, 2010 2:28 AM | Report abuse

Old news, dude you got to keep up this was a story last month. A lot of your reports are like a month behind.

All the telcos did away with unlimited.
The reason people buy a smartphone is to be on the net the telcos did not figure that when they allowed the phones on there networks.

Posted by: shamken | July 1, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

Im on the verizon network and I have a blackberry Storm I. I use 278 MB of data usage a month. I prefer to use my handheld device over my PC. because it so much faster then waiting for my laptop to turn on when Im at home. I have unlimited data usage.

Posted by: sscott4321 | July 1, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

My wife and I (iPhone 3GS and 3G) never go above 200mb/month each. I use my data plan mostly while riding the commuter bus, to surf news sites, check email, etc. I rarely download unless I'm on wi-fi. I am seriously thinking about ATT's $15/month data plan but am hesitant because of all the new streaming options that are available.

Posted by: daveb3 | July 1, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

I wasn't tracking the usage on my iPhone 3GS until AT&T announced its new data plans. Since then, I've used about 300 MB. I mainly use my phone for email, Twitter, Facebook, texting, audio streaming, some online games and other frivolous activities. I also use the GPS and google maps a lot.

While I'm probably someone who could benefit from one of the lower cost data plans, I like having the option to go unlimited, which is why I'm not upgrading to iPhone 4 any time soon. That, and I'm waiting for my contract to expire so I can switch to Verizon.

Posted by: danieldubya | July 1, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

"On the iPhone 4 I just reviewed, I saw the figures in the picture above:
182 MB sent, 2.2 GB received, for a total well over the 2 GB allocation of AT&T's higher-end data plan."

This is the total and not a reflection of the data. The AT&T app or the website actually shows how much "data" is used per month. Based on the way you described I've sent 244 MB and Received 3.1GB far exceeding a 2GB cap. However when I check through AT&T I've only used 140mb of data with about 14 days left in the billing cycle. This more accurately reflects my data (internet) usage (light to moderate use).

Posted by: jabreal00 | July 1, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

iPhone. Data use is *way* up in the last couple of months. Trying to figure out what it is . . . my suspicion is Words with Friends.

I've gone from 500MB-700GB to over 1GB. My wife is even more increased (250MB to 2GB+), and she plays WwF an unhealthy amount.

Posted by: ah___ | July 1, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

current period - 8 hours 54 minutes
Cellular Network Data

Sent 332 MB
Received 12.8 GB

And I didn't DO anything today except TRY to look at the new FarmVille app.
Heaven knows how much it is if I watch (or listen) to a baseball game.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | July 1, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I have an unlimited data plan for my smartphone from Verizon Wireless. My new billing cycle started about 6 days ago and I've already used 132MB. I use a lot the Internet access via the smartphone for research while on the job because for security reasons, I only have access to a select number of websites.

Posted by: writer_33 | July 1, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

If an iPhone customer buys the 200MB data plan and Apple pushes out an update to iOS which can run (according to a previous post by Mr. Pegoraro) well over half a gig, who pays for the air time?

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | July 1, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

iOS updates are not downloaded over the 3G network to an iPhone. iOS updates are delivered through iTunes and updates are done while the iPhone is connected to your computer with a USB cable. iTunes downloads iOS updates through the computer's internet connection so it will not affect the data usage on the iPhone.

Data the iPhone retrieves via wifi is not counted in the data plans, so if you are getting most of your data over wifi, there is no need for an unlimited or even 2GP data plan.

Posted by: BowHill | July 1, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

The data usage shown on my iPhone is very different from AT&T's myWireless app. On AT&T's website, it shows I average 600MB/month. In the last 5 days, the iPhone says I've used 664MB sent and 4.8GB received. AT&T says I've used 95.43MB in the last 4 days. Huge difference. Even though the iPhone says "cellular data", maybe it includes wifi? (I have screenshots too but can't post them here.)

Posted by: filmjoy | July 2, 2010 6:04 AM | Report abuse

Everyone except Rob, the Cellular network data stats are all time stats, not per month or per usage or since last charge. If you want to know per billed month then you'll need to reset each time the billing cycle starts. Better yet, check your account online.

Rob, You need to edit this statement: "On the iPhone 4 I just reviewed, I saw the figures in the picture above: 182 MB sent, 2.2 GB received, for a total well over the 2 GB allocation..." It makes you sound like an iDiot and you're not, right? Regardless, from the comments, it is pretty darn clear you have confused your audience of what that number represents.

Posted by: prokaryote | July 2, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

People who already have unlimited data plans get to keep them when they upgrade to the iPhone 4. Changing to a $15 or $25 metered plan is optional.

Posted by: query0 | July 2, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

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