What smartphone users don’t know about their bill
Some US carriers are overcounting data use – and customers are the ones paying for it.
It's tough enough to make sense of your cell phone bill with all the “extra” fees, and now it turns out your bill could be wrong.
New research from the University of California at Los Angeles, presented at the MobiCom Conference recently in Istanbul, Turkey, looked at the systems of two large U.S. cell phone networks (which the researchers declined to identify) and if they’re accurately charging customers for data use.
According to Technology Review, the researchers used a data-tracking app on Android phones to check the data the phone actually used versus what that the carriers were recording. They found that the carriers tended to overcount data when a person used applications like YouTube or Pandora, or any app that streams video or audio, particularly when coverage was weak or unreliable. The miscount could potentially show up as extra charges on a customer’s bill.
Even typical use of cellular phones, like checking email and using search engines, could lead to data being overcounted by 5-7 percent, according to the researchers. AT&T (T) charges $10-$15 and Verizon (VZ) charges $15 for straying into each new gigabyte of data over the data cap – even if you only use one kilobyte. AT&T’s lowest-tier plan, for example, offers only 250MB a month of data. How quickly can 250MB be used? Sprint estimates that 250MB equals just over an hour of streaming music, 15 minutes of YouTube videos, 20 photos uploaded and download, and two downloads of apps and games.
The problem is, carriers count data downloaded or streamed over their networks whether or not a handset receives it. Video and audio are especially vulnerable because their protocols do not require the end user's device to acknowledge the receipt of every piece of data. At times, the data transmission from the server to the mobile device will continue to load, even if the wireless link is broken, explained UCLA researcher Chunyi Peng. “In one of our tests, video streaming lasted about five minutes after the link was broken. Users could be charged while not receiving anything.”
All this matters because as more customers own smartphones (50.4 percent of mobile subscribers now own a smartphone) and flood networks with data usage, many mobile carriers have replaced unlimited data plans with ones that have data use caps. AT&T was the first to do so in June 2010, and T-Mobile and Verizon followed soon after (though in August this year, T-Mobile had a change of heart and announced a new unlimited individual data plan). Sprint continues to offer an unlimited data plan.
Despite the caps, data usage continues to increase. From 2010 to 2011, the average AT&T customer used 116 percent more data, Sprint’s average customer usage went up 69 percent, and Verizon’s rose 150 percent, going from an average of 206.6MB of data to 512.4MB (though Verizon didn’t have a data cap until July 2011). AT&T and Verizon recently announced “shared-data” plans for individuals and families with multiple devices, but these plans also have data caps.
Though the Federal Communications Commission has required that carriers alert customers when they’re getting close to their data cap, giving them the option to either use less data for the rest of the month or upgrade to a higher tier plan before they’re charged, the requirement isn’t in full effect until October this year.
Sheryl Nance-Nash is a contributor at The Fiscal Times. Subscribe to The Fiscal Times' FREE newsletter.
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