Are Megabytes Meaningless To Customers?

by @edent | # # # # | 1 comment

This is a necropost – resurrected from the now defunct blog of a previous employer..

Pop quiz: How many MB did you use watching that YouTube video?

When dealing with data usage, a familiar cry in the telco world is “Customers just don’t understand what a MB is!”

Is this true?

The theory goes something like this…

  • Some elements of a phone bill are easy to conceptualise.
  • Customers understand how many minutes they’ve used, texts they’ve sent, etc.
  • Telcos are able to explain the usage limits that apply to these elements of their customers’ tariffs.
  • Customers are happy because they know what to expect.

So far, so good. But now we move to data usage…

  • Data is fairly ephemeral.
  • There’s no way for customers to know how much data they are using.
  • Customers get angry and complain because they don’t know what a MB is and what it allows them to do.

It’s fairly easy for anyone to guess how long their last phone conversation was.
I’m fairly technical – I know the difference between my Megabyte and Mebibyte – but I couldn’t tell you how many MBs a paritcular YouTube video uses.

Is This A Problem?

There’s a very superficial solution to this problem – give everyone unlimited* data.
*Fair use policy applies, not between 9AM and 7:30AM, except weekends, terms and conditions apply, excludes P2P, VoIP cost extra, only on a 36 month contract, see back of pack for details.

Let’s assume, for now, that’s a little way off.

We have three questions:

  1. Do customers understand what a MB is?
  2. Can customers tell how many they have used?
  3. How can Telcos educate their customers?

Does The Average Customer Understand?

No. I wish they did – hell, I wish I understood.
A recent article on the BBC goes some way to explain how widespread the confusion is.

This confusion spreads to the fixed line Internet world.

The New York Times conducted a brief survey which reflected just how hard it is to explain this to customers.

So, How Much Is A MB?

Try to visualise how much Internet usage 1MB is. Various providers in the UK have tried – and all produce fairly different estimates.
According to

Every 500MB of UK data will allow you to (approx):
Send 500,000 emails, without attachments
or send 1,000 emails, with photos attached
or visit 5,000 simple sites, like Twitter or your favourite blog
or visit 1,500 rich content sites, like, or
or download 50 (low quality) or 12 (high quality) music tracks
or watch 60 YouTube videos, about 4.5 minutes long

According to

ServiceUsageAverage data size
TVWatching a 30 min episode of a series90MB
You TubeMusic Video – 4 mins11MB
Radio App10 mins15MB
Facebook15mins with no video streaming5MB
Email100 emails sent/received with no attachment2.5MB
Email with photo or doc attachment10 emails sent/received containing attachment18MB
Web Browsing100 web pages20MB
Web Browsing1 hour26MB
Google Maps10mins6MB

Whereas Everything Everywhere talk about how much you can do in general.

A chat with a T-Mobile UK rep reveals that PAYG customers get “unlimited browsing – but a 500MB download limit.” Huh?

So, as clear as mud.

What Is Data?

One of the problems is that the amount of data a service uses changes over time. Recent studies have shown the average webpage now consumes 30% more data than it used to.

This is vividly illustrated by looking at Orange’s old data advice, which used to state.

1MB is approximately equal to:
160 wap pages
or viewing 20 web pages
or downloading 10 games
or downloading one high quality music track
sending around 100 short emails each containing up to 100 words
or sending/downloading up to four video clips

Reasonable enough in 2009 – but today you’d struggle to find 1 game – let alone 10 – that weighs in at under 1MB.

Even if we assume that users know that 1MB = 1024KB, and that YouTube uses roughly 1MB per minute, and that their emails are all under 1MB – they still don’t know what all the apps on their device are doing.

What if Angry Birds decides to download new levels? What if someone emails them a 10MB attachment? What if their DropBox app decides to upload all their photos?

How can anyone keep track?

Keeping Track

Modern versions of Android have a data use tracker hidden away in the menus.
Android Data Usage screen
The iPhone gives its users a slightly less detailed view.
iPhone Data Usage screen

But the problem with these is that the customer needs to make a conscious choice to view these apps.

In my decade in the mobile industry (not all of it spent at Telefonica!), I’ve tried half a dozen different ways to help customers understand their usage.

  • I was involved in a crazy plan to bill users by time. With the rise of background data usage, that died an ignoble death.
  • One company tried to sell me a system which would charge for web browsing, but not for email.
  • I looked at artificially slowing down data once a certain cap was reached.
  • We investigated charging for separate services – YouTube is £X per month, Facebook is £Y per day etc.
  • Using operator apps and portals which would give a real-time summary of where all your data allowance had gone – YouTube was 50MB today, Facebook 3MB this week etc.
  • Sending reminder texts to customers to inform them of their usage.

All these services exist throughout the world. All of these services fail at their primary purpose – educating customers. They serve only to confuse customers and obfuscate the process by which they are billed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible – even for a committed geek like me – to understand data usage in the same way that call and text usage is intuitively understood.

I know that my minutes have gone down because I placed a call to my mother. I have no idea when my PodCast client decides to kick off a download – nor how much data it is using by doing so.

What we need to do is constantly inform customers of how much they’re using and how much of their allowance they have left. Either daily or weekly alerts – or when they’ve used 10%, 25% of their allowance.

An interesting alternative is Vodafone UK’s Data Test Drive. They give customers 3 months of unlimited data – at the end of the trial, Vodafone tells the customer how much data they used on average. The goal being that the customer can then make a more educated choice of tariff based on experience of “regular” data usage.

Until we can give every user unlimited data (at what speed? With “fair use”? Domestic or international?) we need to clearly communicate to users what they’re using and how much they have left.

What do you think? Would you appreciate a regular SMS telling you how many of these ethereal data packets you’ve used? Or is there a better way?

One thought on “Are Megabytes Meaningless To Customers?

  1. Hugh Wells says:

    Zevvle ( actually do a good job of this.

    You pay per the byte that you use at a given rate and you can see in their easy to use, easy to install app exactly what/how much you have used down to the minute. The important thing is that although you can see the amount in MB/GB it is also translated into £. So you can see how much actual currency you have spent at 6pm this evening watching that YouTube video on the train.

    Honestly, I think the Telco apps are one of the biggest issues at the moment. I used to be on EE and the app was a bloated piece of garbage – it couldn’t show me how much data I had used from month to month, let alone throughout the day.

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