AT&T (NYSE:T) has been making headlines recently for its missteps in data-flow throttling for subscribers who favor bandwidth-intensive services, but the reality is that no matter which cellular service provider you use, increased data consumption is getting more costly.
Smartphones and tablets are becoming more popular with consumers, and the capabilities of these devices mean increased demand for more data and high-speed downloads. Cellular providers, facing network congestion and expensive upgrades, have reacted in a variety of ways: increasing prices, eliminating unlimited-data plans, and throttling back the download speeds of some users. As a consumer, you can switch providers (once your contract is up), but there’s no escaping the fact that, through money or performance penalties, mobile data is costly.
One of the best ways to fight back is to take steps to reduce your data use when connected to a cellular network. Here are five steps you can take to help reign in your mobile device’s appetite for data:
1. Avoid Streaming. One of the reasons smartphones and tablets are popular is their capability to double as a multimedia device. Unfortunately, multimedia content (especially video) is data intensive. If you want movies or music on the go, load them up on the device from a computer or over Wi-Fi and play them locally. If you must stream when mobile, choose low-resolution video or low-bit-rate audio streams. Streaming high-definition video from Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) can chew through 1.5GB of data per hour and high bit rate streaming audio can consume 60MB per hour.
2. Avoid BIg Downloads (and Uploads). This sounds like a no-brainer, but people don’t always realize how big some of the files they download or upload from their mobile device can be. Digital photos taken on a smartphone like Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 4S are around 3.5MB each, and video runs at roughly 180MB per minute — if you upload these files to a photo- or video-sharing site, data usage adds up quickly. And while the file sizes of many apps are quite small, some of the top-selling games for mobile devices can be huge. EA Sports’ (NASDAQ:EA) FIFA11 for iPad clocks in at 1.25GB, for example.
3. Monitor App Data Use and Shut Down Bandwidth Hogs. There are apps available for all platforms that will monitor data use and help you to identify those that are consuming the most data. Pay particular attention to background data use, such as push notifications, syncing, and app updating. You can set up most of these actions to be triggered manually instead of automatically.
4. Make the Most of Wi-Fi Hotspots. Most cities have many free Wi-Fi hotspots. Get to know where they are and take advantage of them. Use Wi-Fi for downloads, checking e-mail, and other data-intensive tasks. Just make certain that you take security measures into account when using public Wi-Fi. General Web surfing should be okay, but avoid banking or shopping online unless sites are encrypted (HTTPS). E-mail clients should have SSL (secure sockets layer technology) enabled for protection and if accessing a corporate network, consider using a virtual private network (VPN).
5. Use a Mobile-Optimized Web Browser. The default web browsers on most smartphones and tablets look nice, but they can be data hogs. Using a browser like Onavo (for iOS) or Opera Mobile can cut data usage while Web surfing by up to 90% by compressing images and other content before delivery to your mobile device.
Reducing your data consumption when connected to a cellular network is your best defense against the rising costs of mobile data. There are other gains from this strategy as well. You will see reduced roaming charges and should also notice an increase in battery life.
There is one last option. Research in Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) has been in a downward spiral and most of our coverage in the past year has reflected the company’s ongoing parade of bad news. However, it should be noted that RIM built its business around delivering data efficiently and securely. Because the network’s e-mail is filtered and offers capabilities such as downloading message headers only and data compression by RIM, BlackBerry data use can be as little as one-tenth that of competing smartphones. BlackBerrys may be a generation behind iPhones and Android smartphones when it comes to hardware and operating systems, but they still have an edge when it comes to mobile data costs.