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Binge worthy: slow data speeds could hamper your Netflix marathon. Photo/Getty Images

Finding the best mobile data plan for binge-watching

New mobile data deals mean it’s getting harder to work out what’s best.

If results of a survey commissioned by Vodafone are to believed, we may need to update Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs.

Market-research agency Colmar Brunton asked 1000 Kiwi mobile users about their phone habits and found that data came in just behind toilet paper, petrol, milk and bread in regards to essentials they most feared running out of.

Mobile data has always been sold and marketed as a scarce commodity. Although we used to pay 20c a text message and 80c a minute or more to make a mobile call, those plans have long since taken the all-you-can-eat route.

Data has been the holdout, though more expensive plans have emerged with “unlimited” data included, but the download speed slows after a certain threshold of gigabytes is reached.

Vodafone’s move last week to introduce a range of pay-monthly plans, with “endless data” included for all of them, is the first move to mainstream the concept of unlimited mobile data.

The plans range in price from $40 to $100 a month and include unlimited data, texting and calling. Crucially, you can set your phone up as a Wi-Fi hotspot to share your internet connection with other devices, such as a laptops, smart TVs, tablets and other smartphones.

Other unlimited plans have typically excluded hotspotting or charged an extra $10 a month for the privilege. The big catch with the new plans, though, is that after a certain download threshold is reached, your connection speed slows down.

For the “Small” plan, that happens after you’ve used 4GB of data; the $80 “Large” plan kicks in after 40GB of data use. At that point, your connection is slowed to 1.2Mbps (megabits per second). That’s still enough to stream music, send Facebook messages and surf the web, but it won’t reliably work for the one thing we are doing a lot more of on our mobiles – streaming video.

Netflix, for instance, recommends a 5Mbps connection for high-definition video and 3Mbps for standard, or DVD-quality, video. So, forget the prospect of ditching your home broadband connection and going all-mobile unless you want to stump up $80-100 a month. You’ll probably blow through that data threshold and see your speed throttled to a frustratingly slow level.

Still, Vodafone’s move is likely to tip the whole market towards treating unlimited data as the norm, albeit with speed restrictions. At the moment, Vodafone’s rivals Spark and 2degrees offer unlimited data plans for $80 and $85 each respectively. Spark adds on $10 to allow hotspotting and both throttle back the data speed when you reach 40GB.

The key to getting the best value is knowing how much data you are likely to use in a given month. I always overestimate what I need. I have a Skinny prepaid plan that, for $47 a month, gets me 12GB of rollover data and unlimited calling and texting. I checked the Skinny app recently and I have 108GB of rollover data available.

That means I’m not using my full allowance each month, mainly because whenever I’m at home, I’m on my Wi-Fi connection, which uses my home-broadband connection’s data instead of Skinny’s.

It may well be that a monthly 10-12GB full-speed data plan is actually better than Vodafone’s endless data deals where you face that speed reduction.

Some mobile operators also let you buy extra data for a short period of time. 2degrees has its Data Clock, which gives you unlimited data access for a set period – 15 minutes will cost you 40c, 12 hours will cost $4. Skinny recently introduced a $20 plan where you can add unlimited data as well as unlimited calling and texting for one week. That’s great if you are planning a Netflix binge or need to work remotely for a few days.

The data pipe is starting to flow more freely, but check your mobile data usage to make sure an endless supply is actually worth it.

This article was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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