How to Track and Manage Smartphone Data Use

Wednesday Apr 18th 2012 by Joseph Moran
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We've got tips and resources to help you monitor and control smartphone data usage and avoid extra charges or connection slowdowns.

Not too long ago, smartphones routinely came with unlimited Internet access via the carrier’s mobile data network. That’s no longer the case, as most carriers have now abandoned all-you-can-eat data plans in favor of metered plans that give your smartphone a limited amount of data transfer per month.

Exceed that limit, and you can expect extra fees on your next bill for any excess data transfer, or else find your smartphone’s Internet connection temporarily "throttled" (i.e. slowed down to a small fraction of its normal speed) until the start of the next billing period.

My Verizon Mobile app

Figure 1: Carrier apps such as My Verizon Mobile can tell you how much overall data you’ve used so far in the month, though the figure isn’t always current.

Whether you’re in the market for a smartphone or already own one, there are three strategies to avoiding -- or at least minimizing -- the unpleasantness of extra fees and connection slowdowns.

  1. Know a carrier’s data plan; its transfer limits and overage policy   
  2. Monitor your smartphone’s data usage regularly  
  3. Limit or shift your consumption when necessary

Know a Carrier’s Data Plan

Just as you consider phone availability, network coverage or customer service reputation when choosing a carrier, it’s important to have a clear understanding of how much data transfer a carrier gives you and at what cost, as well as what happens if and when you go over your limit.

Comparing data plans between carriers -- or even figuring out how much of a given carrier’s total monthly bill is for data (as opposed to, say, voice minutes or text messaging) -- isn’t always obvious. That's due mainly to variations in plan type bundles or promotions, but here’s a rundown of the monthly smartphone data plan offerings and overage policies for the four major national carriers:

AT&T

  • 300 MB: $20 per month
  • 3 GB: $30 per month
  • 5 GB: $50 per month
  • Overage penalty:  $10 per extra GB (except for 300 MB plan, which charges $20 for each extra 300GB used) 

Sprint

  • Unlimited: $30 per month
  • Overage penalty: None

T-Mobile

  • 200 MB: $10 per month
  • 2 GB: $20 per month
  • 5 GB: $35 per month
  • 10 GB: $65 per month
  • Overage penalty: throttle connection down to 50 kbps (except for 200 MB plan, which charges $0.10 for each extra MB used) 

Verizon

  • 2 GB: $30 per month
  • 5 GB: $50 per month
  • 10 GB: $80 per month
  • Overage penalty: $10 per GB

As you can see, overage charges can be significant, and you should also keep in mind that they apply to fractions of extra usage too, so for example, if you use 2.2 GB on Verizon’s plan, you’ll get hit for an extra ten bucks just the same as if you had used 3 GB.

Also note the especially punitive overage fees on AT&T and TMobile’s entry-level tiers -- you’ll probably want to avoid them unless you’re absolutely certain you’ll be making scant use of smartphone data.

Speaking of knowing how much smartphone data you’re going to use, you can get a (very) rough estimate by consulting data calculators that will quiz you about how heavily you’ll use your phone for various activities such as media streaming, Web browsing, and social networking. They’re offered by AT&T , T-Mobile, and Verizon

How to Monitor Smartphone Data Consumption

So how can you keep tabs on your smartphone data usage? At a bare minimum, logging into your account on the carrier’s Web site periodically is a good way to track how much data you’ve used so far in the current billing cycle. A carrier's specialized smartphone app, such as My Verizon Mobile (iOS/Android) or myAT&T, is usually a more convenient way to get this same info, and an even more convenient way to get it is by dialing *DATA# on AT&T or #DATA on Verizon to receive it via text message.

Whether you get it via Web, app or text, there are two caveats you need to know when getting your data usage information from the carrier. First, the reported figure may not reflect your most recent activity -- it can be anywhere from several hours to several days behind. Second, the figure represents your smartphone's aggregate usage; since it's not broken down by app or activity, it can’t tell you which ones are the biggest consumption culprits.

Fortunately, you can obtain detailed, real-time data usage statistics from your smartphone. For example, both My Data Manager for Android (free with ads and $4.02 without them) and Onavo Count (free) will tell you how much data individual apps are using, track your historical consumption, and notify you when certain thresholds are reached.

DataMan Pro ($1.99) does much the same thing for the iPhone, and there’s also a free version of DataMan, though it doesn't break data usage down by app.

My Data Manager Android app

Figure 2: Third-party apps such as My Data Manager for Android can break down your data usage by app and warn you before you hit your limit.

If you have one of the (relatively few at the moment) phones with the new Android 4.0 mobile OS (a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich), be advised that ICS includes comprehensive data usage info and notifications built-in.

The iPhone also includes a data usage meter built into iOS, but it's not terribly useful since it only tracks the total amount of data sent or received since the last time it was reset -- which for most people will be never. Still, it can have some value if you get in the habit of resetting it on the first day of your billing cycle.

Limit or Shift Your Consumption

So what can do you do when you find yourself approaching your monthly transfer limit and looming overage charges or a throttled connection?

For starters, you'll want to minimize your use of mobile apps and services that tend to be the most voracious data hogs. Video streaming like Netflix or YouTube is an obvious culprit, but even streaming audio from services such as Pandora or Spotify can add up quickly over several hours.

Downloading new apps (or updating existing ones) is another big consumer of data, and if you're the type that frequently posts photos to Facebook or other online services from your smartphone, remember that uploads count against your data transfer limit.

One service you generally won't have to worry much about is email, since text doesn't use a lot of data and attachments are generally not downloaded automatically. But if you get a torrent of daily email and/or have multiple mail accounts configured on your phone, you might want to consider temporarily turning off push email and downloading new mail manually.

Of course, a good way to have your cake and eat it too is not necessarily to give up any of the aforementioned activities, but only engage in them when you're connected to a Wi-Fi network at home, work, etc. Just remember to configure your smartphone to connect to these Wi-Fi networks in advance, so they'll be available for use in lieu of the 3G/4G connection.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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