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Put your smartphone on a data diet

Here's how you can cut back on your smartphone data usage and keep your wireless bills under control.

By MSN Money Partner Jan 20, 2012 4:29PM

This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner siteSmartMoney.


With wireless carriers jacking up rates, just as mobile apps grow hungrier for more data, it may be time for consumers to put their phones on a diet.


The average cellphone customer aged 24-35 consumed 578MB of data per month during the third quarter of 2011, a 118% increase over usage during the same period in 2010, according to Nielsen. Over the past year, Verizon eliminated unlimited data plans in favor of a tiered system, and it, AT&T and Sprint's Virgin Mobile announced initiatives to slow the data speed of heavy users.


Then, earlier this week, AT&T announced a new set of data plans with 33% higher prices that will take effect on Jan. 22. Instead of 200MB for $15 and 2GB for $25, new customers can now choose between 300MB for $20 and 3GB for $30. Existing customers will be allowed to keep their current plans.


Analysts say data charges are only going to go up as more consumers pick smartphones and take advantage of all of their features. Nokia Siemens Networks estimates that by 2020, the average user could be going through a full gigabyte of data daily. "Death, taxes and increases in your cellular bill are all things we can count on," says Brad Spirrison, the managing editor for app review site Appolicious. With that in mind, smartphone users can cut back on their data consumption by tweaking settings and changing their behavior.


Hunt for Wi-Fi

Just half of smartphone owners tapped into a Wi-Fi connection on their phone over the previous 30 days, says Don Kellogg, the director of telecom research and insights at Nielsen. Carriers charge only for data sent over their own networks -- not Wi-Fi -- so that means a lot of people aren't taking advantage of a big opportunity for free Web browsing, email and downloads.


Kellogg says Android and iOS devices automatically connect to known Wi-Fi networks, so make sure to give them the password to home and work connections. Consumers already using Wi-Fi could save, too, by using it more. It's best to wait until one is on a free connection to download or update apps and transfer other big files, he says.


Go off-grid

A wide variety of apps and features, including the camera and Facebook, use the phone's GPS to track its location. That's great for a user who's looking for directions or logging a run, but the function can keep running in the background even when the app isn't in use, says technology consultant Alex Goldfayn, the author of "Evangelist Marketing." "That's eating data and draining your battery," he says.


Smartphone users can toggle settings on their phones to turn individual apps' access on and off as needed. It's tough to say exactly how much it will save, but combined with other strategies the shift could be enough to push subscribers into a smaller data bucket. There's also a phone-wide off/on option for location-tracking, says Goldfayn, but hit that switch with caution -- setting everything to "off" also nixes apps that track a lost or stolen phone. Post continues below.

Save video for bigger screens

Experts agree: Video is currently the biggest data-suck out there. "One movie will probably get you close to 1 gigabyte of data, streamed," says Goldfayn. T-Mobile's data use-estimation tool projects someone who streams videos "occasionally" might use 5.86 gigabytes per month for that habit alone, for example. As a comparison, combined, occasional use of apps and games, file transfers, Web surfing and email use only 3.5GB per month.


Watch downloaded rather than streamed content while using the carrier's data network, Goldfayn advises, and look for a Wi-Fi connection for streaming when possible.


Choose a less data-hungry phone

According to a recent report from consulting firm Arieso, iPhone 4S users download 2.76 times as much data as iPhone 3G users. "It is the case certainly that there are some devices that are associated with the increased use among subscribers," says Michael Flanagan, Arieso's chief technology officer. But he says it's not yet clear whether having a particular handset causes consumers to spend more, or if it's more that heavier data users are drawn to specific handsets.


In any case, smartphone users hoping for a smaller bill could see some savings by picking a handset that offers fewer opportunities to use data. (Sorry, Siri.)


Set a limit

Under new Federal Communications Commission rules, carriers must start sending alerts by Oct. 17 to warn subscribers as they approach their plan limits for voice minutes, texts or data. Unusual use may already trigger a courtesy call or text in some cases, experts say.


Right now, many carriers offer family controls for a small fee, roughly $5 per month, that let users set hard limits on phone usage, including downloads. Android device owners using the latest operating system, called Ice Cream Sandwich, can also adjust phone settings to cut off data use entirely to avoid going over the limit, says Spirrison.


Monitor family use

Depending on the plan, a family might have separate data charges for each line or one shared bucket, Kellogg says. Either arrangement could be problematic, considering that data usage among teens ages 13-17 spiked 256% over the past year, according to Nielsen.


Teens' average 321 megabytes per month is relatively modest compared with the average 578 megabytes per month among the 25-34 set, but that alone is still more than carriers' cheapest data plans, and combined with other lines, could easily force an overage. "Just like anything else you give your teenager, you should monitor data use," says Kellogg.


More on SmartMoney and MSN Money:

Jan 21, 2012 12:48PM
I use WiFi only, no data.(ie: McD's, Subways, Starbucks, work, home, etc.) I also make most calls over VoIP (Google Voice free calls) through WiFi and use no cell minutes. No Wifi available is rare, if so I can get 1 day of unlimited data for $1.49 for 24 hours and use it for VoIP to PSTN calls and internet etc.  T-Mobile prepaid costs me about $3.25 a month. $100.00 into prepaid account lasts me about 2 and a 1/2 years. The man does not stick it to me, vice verse a.
Jan 22, 2012 3:46AM
Here's an even better idea.  Protest the idea of price hikes for data.  If consumers allow the phone companies to charge more and more for cell phone data, its only a matter of time before internet providers start chargine for data.  Its a trickle now, but if its allowed to get out of hand, before you know it you're smartphone AND interenet will find itself eating away at your finances. 
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