NEW YORK -- Are you a wireless data glutton or a nibbler?
Many Verizon Wireless customers will have to figure that out -- perhaps as soon as this week -- as the country's largest wireless carrier is set to introduce data plans with monthly usage caps.
Here is some help determining which plan will work for you, even if you don't know how many megabytes are in a gigabyte.
Verizon hasn't said what its plans will look like. But because AT&T introduced capped data plans a year ago, and T-Mobile eliminated its unlimited data plan in May, this is well-trod ground.
The new Verizon plans will most likely apply only to new customers or people trading up to smartphones. They also could apply to smartphone users buying new phones.
The tricky thing about capped data plans is that few people have a clue how much a megabyte of data is, so they don't know much to sign up for.
The phones themselves aren't much help; although they can tell you how much data you've consumed so far in a month, they can't tell you which of your smartphone's myriad functions are responsible.
By contrast, a minute spent talking on the phone is easy to understand, and many people have learned roughly how many minutes they use every month.
For AT&T, the introduction of data caps has gone well, but some customers are complaining because their data-usage reports are hard to decipher. AT&T said 90 percent of its customers on capped plans stay within the limits, but it won't say how much those who go over end up paying, on average.
Verizon now charges $30 a month for an unlimited smartphone data plan.
Here's a look at potential caps:
Less than 200 megabytes
It is possible that Verizon could have an entry-level plan for $10 or so per month with a very low data limit, such as 75 megabytes per month. But any plan with less than 200 megabytes per month should be considered mainly a tease. It will be very hard to stay under the limit.
Email, automatic software updates and other data consumption in the background will easily eat up 75 megabytes in a month. That could leave you paying $10 or more in overuse fees -- more than you would if you had chosen a more expensive plan to begin with.
This plan would be Verizon's way of luring people to smartphones. Pick something like this, and pretty soon you'll find you need a higher data cap.
This is a popular size, offered by AT&T ($15 per month) and T-Mobile ($10). When it introduced this plan, AT&T said 65 percent of its subscribers consumed less than 200 megabytes.
But that was a year ago. The average monthly data consumption for a smartphone user back then was 230 megabytes per month, according to an analysis of phone bills by The Nielsen Co. In the first quarter of this year the figure had grown to 435 megabytes per month.
Cisco Systems has lower estimates than Nielsen, 153 megabytes per month last year and 245 megabytes this year. In any case, the message is clear -- a plan that was big enough last year may not be big enough this year. Subscribers seem to be discovering more fun and data-consuming things to do on their phones.
It's still possible to get by on 200 megabytes per month. If you're a light user, stay away from heavy-usage applications such as online music streaming and Netflix video. Use Wi-Fi rather than the phone's cellular network as much as possible. Wi-Fi usage doesn't count toward your data limit.
This is AT&T's standard plan, for which it charges $25 per month. T-Mobile charges $20. This will be enough for most people. AT&T said last year that the plan would satisfy 98 percent of its smartphone users, although that figure is undoubtedly lower today.
If you like to stream online music or videoconference for hours on end, or watch Netflix movies, you'll blow past it.
T-Mobile charges $30 for this tier, or $10 more than the 2-gigabyte plan. Verizon would likely charge substantially more. This would be for those who spend a lot of time on their phones. Laptop cards generally come with this data limit.
What if you don't want to bother with any of this?
Sprint Nextel still offers unlimited data, seeing it as a crucial way to keep and attract customers who are tempted by an iPhone at Verizon or AT&T. However, offering an all-you-can-eat data buffet gets expensive. Sprint raised the fees for all its smartphones by $10 per month this winter to $30.
Some apps worse than others
If you have a wireless phone with a monthly limit on how much data you can use, here are some tips on what types of phone use will gobble up your precious megabytes:
Photos. If you’re a real shutterbug, photos can consume significant amounts of data. Sending and viewing photos count toward your monthly limit.
Posting 10 photos a day eats up most of a 200-megabyte plan. If you’re on a 2-gigabyte plan, you probably don’t have to worry about photos.
Maps. Navigation apps consume lots of data when they retrieve map images, up to a megabyte a minute.
You’re also likely to use them for long periods of time when you’re away from Wi-Fi, such as when you’re driving. Watch out for these.
Web surfing. Web pages vary widely in size, so this will depend quite a bit on whether you like to visit graphically rich sites (lots of data) or spare, textoriented ones (less data).
But roughly speaking, 10 pages a day will eat up about half of a 200 megabyte plan. Again, those on 2-gigabyte plans don’t need to worry much about surfing.
Facebook. Roughly equivalent to web surfing.
Status updates won’t take much data, but sending photos and viewing friends’ pictures will.
Email. Most emails are tiny, in terms of data.
Basically, you can send and receive emails all you want, as long as they don’t have attachments such as photos.
Twitter. Like email, these short messages don’t use much data, but if you follow a lot of people and click on links, usage adds up.
Weather apps. Small, focused apps that report simple but useful things, such as the weather forecast, save data (and time) compared to looking up the same information on a web page.