mobile data overage charges

Toronto, 2016.12.30

For the past few months, I've been paying $5 - $10 a month for overshooting my cellular data allotment on my mobile phone. Not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but upon investigating the problem I've discovered that it's an unnecessary bi-product of the inefficient way that my phone uses data.

No real surprise, there, but here's what I've learned.

  1. The phone itself has tools to help. I use an Android phone that has a "Data usage" section in the settings. There, you can see how much data you've been using over the past billing period. It lists the top data-using applications. By touching an application, you can see how exactly the application has been using that data. There are two categories: foreground and background. Foreground appears to be what the app uses as you're using it. Background appears to be the under-the-hood stuff used for who knows what purpose. (My guess is it's stuff that partially serves you as the user, and partially serves the countless players feeding off you as a consumer.) The happy news is that in a lot of cases, you can disable the background data consumption when you're away from Wi-fi.
  2. The carriers don't care. I find it interesting that the telco / mobile carriers don't alert their users to high cellular data usage or make any attempt to help their users with minimizing unnecessary consumption.
  3. There are apps for that. I'm experimenting with something called Opera Max that routes your requests through servers that compress the entire round-trip traffic generated by the apps you use. I've found that with the web browser in particular, this tool will shave off about 20 - 30% of data consumption without any noticeable effect. Happily, it also has a way of locking other applications out of cellular data access, so I'm using that as well.
  4. Voice over IP is a supposed replacement for cellular voice service, but results obtained by many forum posters tell me that it's still not there yet. Which is a shame, because there are now data-only plans that would allow people to drop voice service through their carrier altogether. I'll keep an eye on those data-only services, though, because my dual-SIM phone would allow to insert one SIM for a data-only plan while keeping another for a voice/text plan.

I've now disabled background use of cellular data by every application I can. I've got Opera Max slimming my cellular data use. I've also told my carrier that I'm fed up with paying so much and that I'm looking for a better solution.

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reader comments

My phone has two more data gotcha settings: 1) Roaming - I have this set to off 2) WiFi assist - this might an Apple specific thing, but whenever the phone thinks the WiFi is dodgy, if this setting is ON, the phone starts sucking data. This setting makes sense in HK, South Korea, but the entire North America has shitty infra. Should never be turned on.


I didn't realize you could turn off roaming at the phone level, it looks like it was off by default on mine. Good to know about that Apple (it doesn't exist on my Moto E) Wifi assist feature.