Ways to Manage the Network Data Usage of Mobile Devices

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Anyone who relies on personal mobile devices like smartphones or tablets sooner or later faces issues with data usage on the online network services they subscribe to. Online services normally restrict the total amount of data traffic each subscriber can generate on the network during a given time period. This data usage can quickly grow out of control if not properly managed. Besides the additional fees incurred, a person's subscription may be suspended, or even terminated in extreme cases.

Fortunately, it's not too difficult to set up a mobile data usage tracking system and avoid the most common causes of usage issues.

Tracking Internet Data Usage of Devices

Internet service providers (ISPs) constantly measure the amount of data flowing through their networks. Reputable providers accurately match the data to their subscribers and provide detailed usage reports to customers periodically. Some also give customers access to online databases for viewing usage information in real time, via the Web or mobile ISP apps such as myAT&T or My Verizon Mobile. Consult your provider for details of the specific data usage monitoring tools they offer.

Various third-party apps designed to track usage of 3G/4G cellular data from a client device can also be employed. Because these apps run on the client side, their measurements may not exactly match those of the service provider (but are typically close enough to be useful.) When accessing an online service from multiple devices, note that each client must be tracked individually and their usages summed together to give the complete picture of network utilization.

Internet Provider Limits on Data Usage

Providers define usage limitations (sometimes called bandwidth caps) and consequences of exceeding those limits in the terms of their subscription agreements; consult your provider for these details. Mobile devices typically have a special monthly limit placed on the total amount of data transferred across the cellular link as measured in bytes, sometimes two gigabytes (2 GB, equal to two billion bytes). The same provider may offer different tiers of online service plans each with different restrictions such as

  • additional limits on short-term ("burst") usage, during one hour or one day periods
  • different (lower) usage limits for additional devices added to a family service plans
  • unlimited usage during non-peak hours of the day, or weekends

Providers normally enforce their data usage limits according to the start and end dates of the monthly billing period rather than the beginning and end of the calendar months. When a customer exceeds limits during the defined period, the provider takes one or more of the following actions:

  • sends a warning message to the customer
  • charges overage fees according to the amount of excess data usage - these fees often progressively escalate as the usage limit is exceeded by greater amounts
  • throttles the connection to very low speed until the next billing period
  • shuts off the connection until the next billing period or until they agree to reinstate it

While many Internet providers offer unlimited data usage for home networks communicating through the broadband modem, some do not. Data usage must be tracked separately for home networks and mobile cellular links as providers place different usage restrictions on each.

Preventing Problems with Excessive Mobile Data Usage

High data usage becomes an issue especially for mobile devices because they are so readily available and frequently accessed. Simply browsing news and sports highlights and checking Facebook a few times each day consumes significant network bandwidth. Watching online videos, particularly those in high-definition video formats, requires especially large amounts of bandwidth. Reducing the use of video and the frequency of casual surfing can be the easiest way to avoid issues with high data consumption.

Consider these additional techniques to keep data usage from becoming an issue on your networks:

  • Be familiar with your online provider's terms of service, including the specific data limits and the defined monitoring or billing period.
  • Regularly check usage statistics supplied by the provider. If nearing a usage limit, try to temporarily restrict utilization of that network until the end of the period.
  • Use Wi-Fi connections instead of cellular where possible and safe to do so. When connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, any data generated across those links does not count toward your service plan limits. Similarly, connections to a home wireless network router avoid generating data on cellular links (though they are still subject to any usage limits on the home Internet service plan). Mobile devices may switch between cellular and Wi-Fi connections without warning; watch your connection to ensure it is using the desired type of network.
  • Install data monitoring apps on any frequently-used devices. Look for and report to the provider any significant discrepancies between app-reported statistics and those from the provider's database. Reputable companies will correct billing errors and refund any invalid charges.
  • If you are regularly hitting usage limits despite efforts to conserve bandwidth, change your subscription to a higher tier or service, changing providers if necessary.