Data allowance has been the most important component of a mobile contract all through the 4G era. It’s going to be even more crucial during the 5G era.
Your data allowance is what gets used every time you access the internet from your phone without a Wi-Fi connection. Social media, YouTube videos, music streaming, direct messaging, and web browsing all consume data while you’re out and about.
With 5G’s exponential increase in mobile network performance and capacity, you may be concerned over how this will cost you - both in terms of megabytes of data allowance and, ultimately, money. Here’s a run down on how much data you can expect to use on a 5G network.
Does 5G use more data than 4G?
5G doesn’t inherently use more data than 4G. It’s merely a more advanced form of network with faster speeds, lower latency and greater capacity. At present, as we’ve just discussed, we’re still using our phones for the same things, regardless of the network we use.
But 5G’s unique attributes will lead to an exponential increase in data usage over time. Its speed, low latency and reliability will lead to far more connected devices than before, and far more advanced use cases.
Purely in terms of regular smartphone usage, we will all start to consume far more data thanks to 5G. Its attributes will lead to more advanced and connected applications that will demand more from a mobile internet connection.
The quality of basic video streaming will increase massively, with increased 4K resolutions, more advanced image processing, and immersive 360-degree video and augmented reality properties. This will mean exponentially more data being pumped over our mobile networks per video stream.
Away from regular mobile usage, the Internet of Things will increasingly rely on 5G to connect homes, cars and entire cities. Meanwhile the fact that 5G will offer a comparable experience to home broadband will lead to a massive market for 5G wireless broadband services.
While those latter elements might not seem to directly impact your mobile data allowance, the point is that everything is going to be more interconnected as the 5G era matures. Your phone will be at the centre of your 5G-connected life, and that in itself is going to take up a lot of extra bandwidth.
How much data do we use today?
According to OFCOM, the average UK phone owner used 2.9GB of mobile data per month leading up to July 2019, just prior to the initial rollout of 5G.
That marks a 25% increase over the previous year, so we would ordinarily expect 4G data usage for 2020 to be at almost 4GB for the average mobile user. That, of course, doesn’t take into account the arrival (albeit relatively limited) of 5G onto the scene.
Still, most of us will be doing the same basic things with our phones throughout 2020. Here’s a breakdown of what some of those basic online activities consume in terms of data.
||Average data use (per hour)
|Web browsing/Social media
How much data will we be using on 5G in future?
While we’re in the early days of 5G connectivity, we already have some data on initial 5G data consumption. The general trend is that significantly more data is being used.
According to Strategy Analytics which collated data on 5G usage in South Korea, the average 5G customer used 24GB of data in June 2019. The average 4G customer used 9.1GB, which represents a 2.6-fold increase. Meanwhile, 5G usage was 3.2 times higher than the 7.4GB market average.
So what can we expect in the short term from 5G data usage, now that 5G networks have started rolling out in earnest? As noted by Mobliciti, the general consensus seems to be that by 2022, average mobile data consumption could be around 20GB per month.
In terms of the nature of that data consumption, mobile infrastructure giant Ericsson predicts that “Three hours more video content will be consumed on mobile devices weekly when away from home, of which one hour will be on AR/VR glasses in a 5G future”.
It also notes that “Half of all users expect their mobile cellular data usage to increase significantly on 5G, and 1 in 5 could see an increase of 10 times, with usage of 200GB per month”.
How much do you need to pay for 5G right now?
So how much can you expect to pay for your 5G data over the next two years or so? We’ve established that ideally, if you were starting a 24 month 5G contract today, you would want at least 20GB of data allowance each month. Here are the cheapest prices across the UK’s big four network operators at the time of writing.
Three provides its customers with access to 5G at no extra charge. This means you can get a 24 month SIM-only plan with unlimited data for £11 per month. If you need a 5G-ready phone, you can get the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G with unlimited data (though typically this is 30GB) for £32 per month and £49 up front
EE requires you to sign up to a handset-inclusive 5G contract, and so the lowest price you can pay is £49 per month and £30 up front. This will get you a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy S10 5G 256GB with 60GB of data, as well as unlimited data and texts.
At the time of writing, Vodafone is offering a SIM-only ‘Unlimited Max’ 5G plan with unlimited data at £15 per month for the initial six months, then £30 for the remaining 18 months. If you need an inclusive 5G handset, you can get the Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G bundled in for £59 per month and £29 up front, along with 24GB of data.
On O2, the Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G with 30GB of data will cost £38.34 per month for 24 months, and £30 up front.
Will we have to pay for more 5G data in future?
While we will undoubtedly be using exponentially more data under a fully built out 5G network, there’s reason for optimism when it comes to pricing - even if initial ‘early adopter’ pricing seems to be on the high side.
5G networks will ultimately have much more capacity than 4G, and will be able to sustain many more devices connecting simultaneously. Data will no longer be such a hard-won resource for network operators, and those savings should ultimately be passed on to the customer.
What’s more, 5G networks are being built around far more efficient virtualisation and network slicing technology. This means that apportioning 5G network capacity to different use cases can be done virtually, in software. Again, this is going to prove much simpler and more cost-effective for networks to maintain in the long run.
Right now, this is cutting edge technology, with network operators having to cover the considerable cost of building out their 5G network infrastructure and reaching full capacity. But it won’t remain that way forever.
The arrival of 5G is bringing about increased performance, and with it new applications. It’s inevitable that this will lead to a massive increase in mobile data usage.
Whether you’re streaming higher quality video, controlling an increased number of connected devices, or taking advantage of the new data-hungry applications that will arrive in 5G’s wake, the simple fact is most of us are going to be needing far more generous data allowances than we have right now.
As things stand, signing up to a 5G contract is generally quite expensive, but that’s an inevitable cost of being an early adopter. Ultimately, as we move into a more settled and capacious 5G future, we’re hopeful that mobile data will start flowing cheaply - if not quite freely.