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10 Ways to Mind the Mobile Data Cap

Sarah Thomas
5/4/2011
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Knowing the mobile apps that bust data caps may not be enough to keep yourself from going over a data allotment. And with unlimited champion Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) reportedly set to be the next to institute tiered rate plans, it's only a matter of time before all the wireless operators leave the all-you-can-eat buffet.

For the data hogs of the world, that means it's time to become more savvy about your wireless usage. Here are 10 ways to possibly avoid going over the limit instead of reverting back to using your phone for voice alone.

1. Read the fine print
Much of the onus for keeping consumers under the cap falls to operators, says Patrick Lopez, founder of Core Analysis and former VP at mobile video optimization vendor Vantrix Corp. They're changing plans relatively frequently, making it hard to keep up. That being said, even if they do a poor job explaining, you still owe. "The best defense for the subscriber is to know the data plans," he says.

2. Use data monitoring tools
Most wireless operators like AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) offer online dashboards to keep track of your usage, and some third parties SPB Software Inc. make mobile versions. It's a much more active role than most consumers with automated billing are used to, but keeping tabs on your usage could be the difference between a US$60 bill and a $600 one. (See CTIA 2011: Which Apps Hog the Most Data?)

3. Take advantage of operator incentives
It's worth looking to see if your wireless operator offers any apps that don't count against the data cap. Owing to fear of net neutrality violations, most don't treat apps differently on their network today, but this is a strategy that every policy management vendor is pitching. It's a way for operators to promote their own "under the cap" services that give them a leg up on over-the-top guys or to encourage the use of third-party apps that are less taxing on the network.

4. Share the sideload
More apps today allow for sideloading, which gives you control over viewing the content or downloading for later use when the phone has better capacity or switches to Wi-Fi. The fact that the app decides for you on how to best jump on the phone makes it a no-brainer.

5. Keep it standard
The higher the quality level of mobile videos, the more data required, so view videos in standard definition wherever possible. "In many cases, a diminution of quality from 480 [pixels] to 240 [pixels] may not be noticeable to the eye, but may result in half the cost," Lopez says. Besides, do you really need high-definition content on a small smartphone screen?

6. Forget about tethering
Mobile data caps will have the biggest effect on users who tether the phones, turning it into a mobile hotspot. Lopez says that tethering is much more expensive than paying a separate service fee for a dongle.

7. Prioritize your usage
In addition to understanding your wireless plan, look up what measures operators have in place to reduce or block data usage after the cap is reached. Some may cut you off entirely while others will let you keep racking up the extra charges. Many will give you a choice. If that's the case, Lopez suggests choosing to have your data turned off once you reach the ceiling, and prioritizing your app usage in the meantime. (See CTIA 2011: Throttling & the Data Cap Debate .)

8. Don't get attached
Email is still a number-one use case for smartphones, which is fine if you're just reading new mail. Attachments, shared links and picture messages will ratchet up data usage. Oftentimes, you can opt to turn off the attachment ability if you're worried about capsizing.

9. Divide and conquer
As consumers rack up a number of devices, it may become important to divide your usage among the device and the network that makes the most sense. Watching long-form video? Pull out your iPad and find the nearest Wi-Fi network. Want to browse the Web? Use your High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) (Taiwan: 2498) Thunderbolt on Verizon Wireless 's Long Term Evolution (LTE) network. Until the data buckets are combined, different devices will be eating up different minutes.

10. Call to complain
If all else fails, raise hell -- but just once. Since so much of what operators are doing today with rate plans can be classified as experimentation, most should offer one "get out of jail free" call. I used mine when I racked up $200 in data charges while abroad. AT&T took the charge right off since it was my first offense. No guarantee this will work, but it can't hurt to try.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

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