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Will Apple Music Kill Your Data Plan?

While switching to Apple Music’s streaming service could dramatically expand your musical horizons, it could also cost you more than Apple’s $9.95-per-month subscription fee. That’s because the volume of bits required by Apple Music’s streaming could vault you past the limit of your phone’s data plan.

To gauge your financial risk, you need to know two things: how much data Apple Music requires, and how much data your existing cell-phone plan allows. Both of those calculations can be complicated.

Bandwidth on the run

The problem with calculating the Apple Music’s data demands is that Apple itself doesn’t say how much bandwidth its streaming service requires.

On Tuesday Mashable reported (without disclosing a source) that Apple Music streams will run at 256 kilobits per second.

In our own quick-and-dirty testing, my colleague Dan Tynan used the bandwidth gauge built into iOS (Settings > Cellular) to see how much data an hour of Apple Music streaming to his iPhone 6 via LTE would burn up. The answer: exactly 50 megabytes, for a bit rate of about 128 kbps.

I found other solid clues on Reddit. There, one user, xavier86, identified support for 64 kbps, 128 kbps and 256 kbps streams in an Apple Music streaming file’s metadata. Another, HeroPiggy95, located distinct 64, 128 and 256 kbps streams that played in non-Apple apps, including the Chrome browser on an Android tablet I tried.

What sort of connection speed will flip your Apple Music Stream from 50 MB an hour to the 100 MB an hour of the maximum-quality stream? Apple PR has not responded to our inquiries, but a tweet from Apple’s Eddy Cue hints that you’ll get 256 kbps only when streaming via WiFi. We may have to wait for further crowdsourced research to get a conclusive answer.

Comparing streams

Even if Apple Music were streaming at 128 kbps, however, that would be double the 64-kbps bit rate of Pandora’s mobile app. In my own testing, that service’s Android app ate up only 21.39 MB over an hour. At that rate, I could listen for an hour a day and still rack up only 663 MB of data-usage in a month.

Spotify’s usage sits between Pandora’s and Apple’s: Its “normal” rate is 96 kbps, while “high quality” uses 160 kbps. And that service offers a still-higher 320 kbps bit rate for paying subscribers.

So switching to Apple Music from Pandora’s free version could double or quadruple your bandwidth usage; going from Spotify’s free tier, you could increase your usage by a third or as much as 60 percent.

What’s the plan?

That brings us to the second question: How much room does your existing data plan leave for Apple Music streaming? The answer depends largely on your carrier.

If you use T-Mobile, its Music Freedom feature—which already exempts 33 music streaming services from the data caps in its plans—should embrace Apple Music shortly.

“It is our vision to add all lawful and licensed music streaming services to Music Freedom,” spokesperson Katie Recken said in an e-mail.

In the meantime, that carrier’s Data Stash could give you some breathing room by rolling over unused data from one month to succeeding months, for up to a year.

AT&T offers a slightly less generous rollover feature: You get only one extra month to use up leftover data. But that could still give you a bit of latitude for binge-listening.

At Sprint, you have fairly generous data caps and some plans without any. Verizon is the least flexible of all: It offers no unlimited plans, no data rollover, and no data-cap exemptions for streaming music.

Math will be required

Regardless of which carrier you use, you’ll need to do a little research to find out if your account can handle Apple Music.

Your monthly statements will show how much data you used in prior months. But you’ll also need to cross-reference those figures with your iPhone’s own reports about how much bandwidth individual apps consume.

You can do that by opening the Settings app, tapping Cellular and scrolling down. Note that this list of apps (unlike Android’s data gauge) is sorted alphabetically, not by total bandwidth consumption. It doesn’t provide a month-by-month breakdown either.

Instead, you get the total bandwidth eaten by each app since you last reset this gauge. So to get a rough idea of your monthly data consumption, take the figures you see for the music streaming apps you’d shelve in favor of Apple Music, then divide their total bandwidth used by however many months it’s been since the Last Reset date shown at the bottom of that screen.

Next, take that number, multiply it by the difference between your existing service’s bandwidth usage and Apple’s (per the discussion above) and you’ll get some idea of the potential bandwidth hit. (So, for example: If you’ve been using Pandora, double that data usage.)

That’s a lot of math. The likely output of that equation? Some howls of outrage from unhappy Apple Music listeners when they receive their inflated cell-phone bills a month from now.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.