Avoiding Gigantic Cell Phone Bills by Understanding Data.

Post Published on December 28, 2012.
Last Updated on April 28, 2016 by davemackey.


A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile phone
A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile phone while standing on a bike in traffic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I bought a used iPhone 4 for my wife to replace her dying iPhone 3G. A few days later she said, “I’m getting messages that I’ve used up 60% of my data plan and I’ll be charged for overages. What do I need to stop doing?” This is a great question. Wireless service providers (e.g. Verizon, AT&T, etc.) want to sell you as large of a data plan as they can – so you feel safe that you won’t get charged overages and on the other hand will charge you heftily if you do exceed your allotted data for the month. So how much data do you need and how can you avoid overage fees? This article will attempt to provide some simple guidelines and basic knowledge that should help you make informed decisions that will save you money and headaches.

The Basics

Smartphones are phones designed to operate as more than a phone – essentially a small computer. They are fantastically useful for organizing one’s life, but they need to transfer data across the internet in order to run most of the applications that make these phones so useful. So, if you have a smartphone, it is likely that you are paying your provide for voice service, text service (sms), and data service. You might have 450 minutes of voice, 500 text messages, and 250 MB of data per month on your plan. How do you determine if this is enough? That is what this article is all about.

What Uses Data?

First, lets talk about what consumes your data each month. There are a few major ways in which data is normally consumed on a smartphone:

  • Streaming Video – This could be from Netflix, Youtube, Hulu, or any number of sites that provide video access on your smartphone.
  • Streaming Music – This could be from Spotify, Pandora, Grooveshark, or a similar service.
  • Application Downloads – The various applications you install on your phone each are a certain size – and some of them can be fairly large. (does it warn you?)
  • Social Networking – This includes services like Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and so on.
  • Internet – This is general web browsing – say if you visit Yahoo or ESPN or Wikipedia.
  • Productivity – This includes applications like email and calendaring – which sync with servers out there on the internet to ensure your phone always has the latest communications and appointments available.
  • Other Applications – Once you have installed applications they generally use some data on occasion – though usually not a lot. This might be polling for updates, sending high scores to a central server, pulling down the latest weather or news, and so on.

Who Are the Troublemakers?

So we know what uses our data, but who are the real troublemakers? Should I stop browsing the web so much or is that not really consuming a lot of my data?

The two major culprits of data consumption are streaming video and music. Video is the largest culprit, but music runs a close second. Not only can the size of the files being transferred to your phone be large, but it is also a continuous process – for as long as you are utilizing the video or music.

Watching a few youtube clips probably isn’t going to consume all your data – but watching a few Hulu episodes? Expect to get some overage charges next month!

The internet generally isn’t a problem, unless you are browsing multimedia heavy sites (e.g. with lots of video/music). Otherwise the internet is largely text and small images – which don’t consume a lot of data.

Everything else will be minor contributors (generally speaking) to one’s data consumption. Though I wouldn’t recommend downloading a hundred large apps in a single month.

Avoiding Overage Charges

This doesn’t mean that you need to stop streaming video and music or downloading massive numbers of apps to your phone. It just means you need to take a few steps to avoid using the cell providers network to watch your video, listen to your music, and download your apps. Not that you have to do this all the time – but most of the time.

The easiest way to do this is to use other devices when they are available. For example, when you are at home and the laptop is sitting right by you – why use your smartphone to listen to music when you could use your laptop instead?

But you probably really want to use your smartphone…so what then? Well, your best bet is to use a WiFi connection. Most internet service providers give you a wireless router when you purchase internet service from them. This is what your computers throughout the house connect to…and your smartphone can connect to it too. When your smartphone uses your WiFi you aren’t charged for the data usage.

But this doesn’t help you when you are away from home – does it? Good news! You can also use other folks WiFi (as long as you have permission). For example, most folks have wireless internet at their homes and many are willing to give you access if you ask while you are visiting. Panera Bread, Starbucks, McDonalds, and numerous other stores offer free WiFi access as a service to their customers…not to mention airports and hotels.

But what if you know you are going to be on the road, you want to watch a video, but you are worried about consuming all your data? Well, that is a bit of a risk…but you can lessen it by downloading applications on WiFi. See, your data usage is cumulative from all the different ways you use it. So, if you download apps over WiFi that means that you have more data available for streaming videos or music or so on.

Personally, I avoid watching video on my smartphone and I never have issues with overages. If you don’t watch videos (regularly) on your smartphone and aren’t a constant music streamer – it is very likely you can get away with a 200-250 MB data plan each month.

What About Texts?

It really bugs me that the service providers charge for texts separately from data – and that they charge so exorbitantly for texts. SMS is a money-making machine for service providers, the costs are negligible to the service provide to give this service and it is essentially just data. You could send thousands of emails each month and not touch your data limits, but send those messages via text and they become a much more expensive proposition.

So how do you avoid getting charged so much for texts? How can you reduce the amount of texts you pay for each month? Let me mention the easiest way as a somewhat humorous – yet actually the way I handle things – method: don’t text.

Yes, Yes, I do text…but I don’t use it as my main form of communication. You can (or should be able to!) type much faster on a computer – so use a computer to communicate. Stop banging away on that tiny keypad on your phone and send an email or a facebook message or write a blog post, etc.

Okay, Okay, I know I’m old fashioned this way (even when I do send texts, I usually use my computer, which then forwards them over to my phone and then over to the recipients phone – that way I can type faster!) and most folks aren’t going to listen to my voice of reason. So what about for the rest of the world? The best solution is to use an alternative texting service such as Google Voice or Textfree. These services generally offer unlimited texting but have the downside of using a separate number for texting. You’ll still get the messages on your phone – but folks who receive your messages will see it as coming from a different number from the one you use on your cell phone to make voice calls.

Another option is to bypass the tether to SMS entirely and to use a general messaging app. Facebook Messenger is one obvious option because of the massive number of folks who use it.

Note: These applications will use data, but the data should be negligible. You are generally transferring text which consumes a minuscule amount of data.

Don’t Leave It to Chance

These guidelines can help you choose a lower data/sms plan and/or help you avoid overage charges – but they are still guidelines and not a hard and fast way to avoid overages or measure usage…but you can do that as well!

Some smartphones now offer this capability built-in (as does my Samsung Galaxy S III – an Android phone), but if your phone doesn’t, there are plenty of applications available for free or at most a few bucks that can measure data usage – and provide you with insight on just how much of your data you’ve utilized over the past month. For example Mobidia’s My Data Manager, Sigterm’s Data Usage, or Onavo’s Count | Monitor Data application.

Concluding Thoughts

Expect in the next few years to see cell phone bills simplify. Instead of paying separately for voice, text, and data everything will be lumped under data. This should help reduce prices – though this is something the carriers will want to avoid.

Take the opportunity to save yourself some cash. Following these guidelines you can easily save yourself $20 or more per month – which adds up! Here is a summary of the ways to save:

  1. Monitor the amount of videos and music you stream to your phone – this is what consumes most of your data. Use other devices when available.
  2. Use WiFi at home and when free WiFi is available, this will reduce the amount of data you utilize.
  3. To lower SMS charges use an alternative application like Google Voice or Textfree.
  4. Monitor your data usage to avoid overages using an app. like My Data Manager, Data Usage, or Count | Monitor Data.

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