HOW TO: Curb Your Smartphone Data Usage and Get Lower Bills

Smartphones are quickly taking over the world.  Every week or two a newer, better, faster, sleeker phone is introduced to the market, sometimes with fanfare, and with some products, such as the iPhone, long lines and campouts.  Smartphones are the phone of the future in our ever changing tech-reliant world.

Yet, along with these beautiful much-loved phones comes a shocking bill.  Apps, internet, YouTube, downloads, streaming music, videos and movies,  and everything else that uses data all counts towards the data plan that most phone carriers charge.  When you go over your limit, the wireless companies quickly tack on extra charges to the bill.  But, these aren’t the only additional charges that might shock the person tasked with the unlucky job of paying the bill.  In-app purchases and the cost of the apps themselves can also rack up extreme charges in addition to the wireless plan that is paid every month.

Gizmodo puts it bluntly: “Unless you’re a Sprint customer – or you’re grandfathered into an unlimited data plan – you’ve only got 2GB of mobile data to play with before you go broke or get throttled.”

According to Randall Stross of The New York Times introduces the reality of the cell phone bill, “A monthly plan entails a minimum payment, whether or not the service is used.  So the bill can’t be lower than expected.  But it could be higher – much higher.  To be precise, there is a 1-in-25 chance during a 12-month period of getting a cellphone bill that is $100 higher than expected,” which was based upon a Consumer Reports survey.

Ralph de la Vega, AT&T’s head of wireless, says that his company is looking into ways to entice the heavy users, the 3% that use 40% of network capacity, to use less. “We’re going to try to focus on making sure we give incentives to those small percentages to either reduce or modify their usage so they don’t crowd out the other customers in those same cell sites.”

Meanwhile, Verizon has taken its own approach to reigning in those who they deem are “heavy data users,”Unlimited data is no longer truly unlimited with Verizon Wireless, which has started slowly down data speeds for its biggest 3G data users at congested cell sites.”

How to lower your bill

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So, with “unlimited” data plans a thing of the past, how can a consumer lower their smartphone data usage and their bill?  As of January of this year, only T-Mobile still offers a data plan that is under $20 a month following AT&Ts decision to no longer offer a 200MB $15 a month plan, leading some to believe the cost of these tiered plans will only go in one direction – up.  As a result, there are only two options for consumers, lowering their data usage, or lowering their bill.

There are limited ways in which a person can lower their bill, mainly a reduction in the number of minutes included, but also through the number of allowable text messages, and forgoing extras such as AT&T’s mobile insurance ($6.99 per month), Verizon’s Mobile Hotspots ($50 per month for 1GB of data, $80 for 5GB), or Sprint’s GPS navigation ($2.99 per day, following 5 free days). While these extras aren’t necessary for optimized smartphone usage, most customers are not spending several hundred dollars on a smartphone to not use its extra features, even if they come at a cost.

How does one lower their usage on their smartphone then?  Here are the five best, and easiest, ways to limit your data usage and keep your bill low.

First, connect to Wi-Fi whenever possible!

Now that we’re quickly moving towards a cloud-based internet experience, with iCloud, Amazon Cloud, and Google Music becoming much more popular, it is going to be easier than ever to quickly exceed your minimal data limit chosen by your cellular company.  “Naturally, service providers like AT&T and Verizon don’t mind – they’ll gladly hit you with a $10 to $30 overage charge whenever you exceed your allotted bytes,” says Sharon Vaknin of CNET.  Connecting to Wi-Fi curbs the data charges allowing users to watch Netflix or listen to streaming music through Pandora nearly free (outside of your data plan that is!).

Know how much data you’re using, and monitor it!

“It’s helpful to understand how much data you consume from your provider in a given month over time,” says Brad Spirrison of Appolicious.  When the user knows how much data they are using over a longer period of time, they can increase or decrease their plan.  It makes no sense for a user to pay the high fee for a 5GB data plan ($50 through AT&T and Verizon) when the data they are using per month is a more reasonable 2GB ($30 for 2GB on Verizon and $30 for 3GB on AT&T).

Knowing how much data a consumer is using is made more helpful when it is also monitored by the user, letting them know when they are getting close to their allocation.  Vaknin suggests two apps, one for Android, one for Apple devices, which monitor data usage, allowing users to be fully in control of the knowledge of how much data they are using.  MyDataManager through the Android store, along with giving the user real-time updates on the data used so far also shows which apps eat up the most data, and allows you to set alerts when a data threshold is passed.  Apple’s App Store offers DataMan which also tracks data usage in real time and allows users to set alerts when they get pass a certain threshold does not provide information about which apps use the most data.

Change your browser

For users who spend a majority of their time browsing the web by forgoing the browser pre-installed on the phone, instead download Opera Mini, available on both the Android and Apple App stores.  90% less data-intensive browsing is both significantly faster and the server-side compression means less data being sent to and from the phone.  Gizmodo points out the one major drawback: privacy.  “[every] site you visit goes through Opera’s servers, which means some circuit boards in Norway are very attuned to your browsing habits,” but they note for data-hogs it is worth it.  They also suggest skipping the PC-version of a website for the mobile version (typically the web address will start with an “m.” then continue on with the web address.  For instance, Southwest Airlines mobile website is: m.southwest.com).

Only play games, listen to music, and watch videos on Wi-Fi

It’s no secret that games are a main staple of the smartphone.  Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja and The Smurfs dominate on Apple and Android devices – both children and adults love them.  Yet, when played on the cellular service and not on Wi-Fi, they quickly chew through valuable data, taking from other more important features such as e-mail.  To cut usage, users should exclusively play these games while on a Wi-Fi network to reduce the amount of data being sent back and forth.  These games also drive up data usage when using the “free” version, as they are ad supported, and thus get to the smartphone over the data connection.

Streaming music and video also quickly use up data allotments.  While many music services are subscription based and carry fees of about $10 a month, some of the mobile apps allow downloaded songs for offline listening, such as Spotify, Mog, Rdio, and Rhapsody.  For people who skip the radio and go right for streaming music at work or in the car, the $10 monthly plans could save the high overage fees tacked onto wireless bills for overages.  The same goes for streaming video.

With Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube all having a smartphone presence they also are guilty of causing data usage and wireless bills to explode unless used exclusively on a Wi-Fi network.  When a user follows a video posted on a friend’s Facebook page that sends them to YouTube, data is being used (a three minute YouTube video will use 5.5MB of data).  A 90 minute movie on Netflix can use as much as 225MB of data, while a video chat that lasts an hour can use up to 450MB of data.

Hidden apps and GPS tools are two culprits of higher data usage that typically go unnoticed.  Both drain the battery faster, and a user only needs GPS when they are trying to get somewhere, allowing no negative consequences of shutting it down when not in use.  GPS tools are not limited to navigation though, apps that track and locate sex offenders, other family members, or deliver information about your surroundings also use up large quantities of data over a period of time.

Google Maps, a mainstay on both Android and Apple products helps locate users as well as gives direction, yet when the map is not cached, it is using valuable, and expensive, data to locate and direct you.  While a Garmin or TomTom navigation system has an initial price that some might see as prohibitive, they do not negatively affect the data usage allotment of a smartphone, keeping usage and costs down.  CNET’s editors believe that,  “The trade-off for their ability to minimize data transfers, of course, is that most GPS apps are huge, occupying a lot of your phone’s storage,” opening up precious space on the smartphone for more fun apps, such as solitaire.

It’s undeniable that smartphones have slowly wiggled their way into dominance in the life of their user.  It’s also undeniable that wireless providers have taken advantage of their customer’s love of their smartphones by increasing prices, decreasing bandwidth, and charging exorbitant overage fees when a user surpasses their monthly allocation.  With these five easy steps consumers can control their wireless bills and reduce their monthly cost without surrendering the smartphone that has become a vital part of their lives.

About Harmony Tapper

Harmony Tapper is a staff writer at SiliconAngle covering the social, mobile and enterprise cloud space. If you have a story idea or news tip, please tweet us at @SiliconAngle.