Understanding mobile data
It finally happened – you bought a smartphone. “Ha, Tak is right. This is not bad at all!” you said to yourself. You love not having to schedule your life around the 6 o’clock news, as your smartphone's apps provide news and other information instantly and on-demand. You even tried FaceTime, Apple’s video-chat app, with your daughter on the West Coast and your family is equally ecstatic about your increased level of connectedness.
The euphoria of finally starting to reap digital world benefits came to a screeching halt when you opened your first bill. You owed exactly $15 more than what the salesperson told you. Over Sunday brunch your son pointed out that you were charged a $15 overage fee on your “mobile data” usage during the month. You frustratingly replied, “but the salesperson told me I had unlimited talk and text!” Your son, the calm and logical one, asked if you understood what mobile data meant; you sheepishly admitted “no.”
As consumers flocked to smartphones, carriers predicted people talking less and using data more. Carriers changed their business model to meter and charge for the usage of the smartphone that is always connected to the internet, aka the cloud, while advertising free talk and text. Brilliant strategy for carriers while consumers need a little more education in the cost-effective use of their smartphones.
When starting a smartphone plan, you have to choose the amount of mobile data you will use per month. Quite simply, think of this amount as the size of a “bucket” where if you use up your allowance, i.e. empty the bucket, before the end of your billing cycle they will refill the bucket and charge you. Some carriers, instead of charging you to refill before the billing cycle ends, will just slow down your connection speed, so consult your carrier to see what your contract's data overage rules are.
Smartphones maintain internet connection in two ways: Wi-Fi or mobile data. When connected to Wi-Fi, at home or through free public Wi-Fi, you are not draining from the mobile data monthly allowance. But when Wi-Fi is unavailable and you want/need to use the smartphone, for example you need to use Google Maps to get to your destination while driving, you use from your mobile data allowance.
So, unless you have the “unlimited everything” plan – which includes an unlimited amount of data in addition to talk and text – you want to use Wi-Fi when available to save your mobile data. If you have Wi-Fi at home, your smartphone will remember to connect to that Wi-Fi and disconnect from using your mobile data allowance, once you come home. If you are at the library or one of the numerous free public Wi-Fi establishments around town, connecting to their Wi-Fi will have the same effect.
Word of advice here: when you are using free public Wi-Fi, unless you are familiar and use a “VPN” app, short for virtual private network, you should not access sensitive services (bank accounts, making purchases, etc.) because “public” really means “public.” There is a price war currently unfolding on “everything unlimited” plan tiers so keep an eye on that, especially if you have multiple lines on an account.
By using Wi-Fi and mobile data appropriately, and also being cognizant of your “realistic” budget, you will be able to find the right monthly mobile data tier, i.e. size of the bucket, to subscribe to depending on your usage habits!
Technology and Organization Strategist with over 25 years of experience. Holds Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Science and Executive MBA from Cleveland State University.
As co-founder of Center for Aging in the Digital World, a nonprofit empowering seniors through technology, and co-founder of geek with a heart with the service mark "Hand-holding You in the Digital World", Tak helps people utilize appropriate technology in their personal and professional lives.