Smartphone data plans: How to keep bandwidth usage in check

I love my hometown of San Francisco. Great weather, great views, great food. But terrible radio. So when I'm driving, I've developed the habit of tuning into Pandora on an iPhone that I link to my car radio. Like a lot of other AT&T customers, I've been moved from my unlimited data plan to measured service. Yes, that was my choice, but what has the metered plan done to my music habit? And does that mean I made a mistake?

Before I answer that, let's talk about measured service. It's not news that AT&T and Verizon, which control most of the national wireless market, hate unlimited service and are in the process of killing it. And although I'm often critical of AT&T's service, I have to admit that in this case, the company's position is reasonable. If you use lots of its bandwidth, paying more for it is the American way.

However - and you knew that was coming - the new plans are pricey and not always easy to understand without doing some homework.

To begin with, figuring out how much bandwidth you're using isn't as simple as knowing how many groceries you bought at the market. Making that issue even more complicated is a surprising fact unearthed recently by the Nielsen company: Users of smartphones running the Android operating system consume on average about 7 percent more data than users of the iPhone - that's 582 MB of data each month, compared to 492 MB.

Neither Nielsen nor I know why there's a difference between data use on the two platforms. Oddly, Neilsen's analysis of nearly 65,000 cell phone bills shows that iOS owners tended to engage in somewhat more data-intensive activities such as listening to online radio or watching streaming video - but use less data.

I've seen speculation that the difference may be caused by the way Google uses location data. When an Android user gives permission to an app that uses GPS information, it frequently sends that data (with identifying information stripped out) to Google, so maybe that stream is thick enough to add megabytes to someone's usage over the course of a month. Or maybe there are a lot of poorly written Android apps that waste data by communicating with someone's server too frequently. (Remember that the Android app market, unlike iTunes, is largely uncontrolled.)

In any case, AT&T's basic plan, called DataPlus, gives you 200 MB a month for $15. Go over that and you're hit up for another $15 for 200 MB more, which only gets you up to 400 MB, well under the average iPhone usage. Obviously, if that user is you, you're much better off buying the DataPro plan, which offers 2GB of monthly usage for $25.

Of course that brings us right back to the question of how you know how much data you're consuming. One way to get a real-time read on your iPhone data usage is to go to "settings," "general" and "usage." Press the reset button, which takes the readout back to zero, and then use the function to meter what you're using.

Or you can use this calculator on AT&T's Web site. But look closely at the numbers. AT&T boasts that you can download 400 pages and still be within your 200 MB limit. Actually, that's just 13 or so Web pages a day. Or you can stream 20 minutes of video, which is, of course, less than one minute a day. As for streaming music, like Pandora, AT&T says it'll eat up about 28 MB an hour, which is actually higher than the usage I noticed when I turned off my Wi-Fi and logged into the music service using a 3G connection.

My point, of course, is how little you get for $15. Compared to the feast of the old unlimited data plans, it's a near-starvation diet.

Here are five things iPhone users can do to keep that data bill from soaring out of control.

  • The first and the very best way to make your data plan last is to use a Wi-Fi connection as much as possible. Data downloaded via Wi-Fi does not count against your monthly total, whether that's on your home network, or a public network at a café or the library.
  • When you leave the house, you can turn off services and apps that push data to your phone. If you don't need to hear that ping every time you've got mail, go into your "settings" page, look for "fetch data" and set it to manual.
  • Go to "settings" and touch "location services." You'll see a list of apps that use your GPS; simply turn off the ones you don't need.
  • If you're a heavy Pandora user, go into its settings and select lower quality, which simply reduces the amount of data it downloads for each song. Frankly, I hardly notice the difference in quality.
  • Check usage yourself. After being on the receiving of criticism for not notifying users when they were about to run out of talk minutes, AT&T got religious and offers a very simple function that will give you an update on the number of texts you've used and the amount of data you've consumed. Simply call *DATA# and AT&T will quickly send a free text with the numbers.

As for me, moving to the metered plan has saved me some money, largely because so much of my iPhone usage is on my home Wi-Fi network. But I have to admit, I do miss the freedom of tuning into Pandora whenever I'm behind the wheel.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline

Read more about mobile/wireless in CIO's Mobile/Wireless Drilldown.

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