3G and 4G is Great When using a Mobile Hotspot...But your apps think you're on Wi-Fi
With more and more devices, like the iPad3 coming with built in 4G connectivity, the shift towards mobile broadband has really picked up steam over the last year. At the same time, some major changes have forced users to be more cautious of their data use.
Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have all introduced high-speed 4G networks that encourage more data usage such as on-demand and streaming video, cloud computing and storage and contemt synchronization across all your devices.
At the same time, every major wireless provider done away with unlimited data plans for all practical purposes, forcing users to keep a watchful eye on their data meters.
Where does that leave the average mobile data user?
In straight manner, all those hours of listening to Pandora while jogging, funny Youtube clips on the commute home, and dozens of downloads from iTunes can rack up some pretty hefty data fees. At least you can basically get a handle on all this data consumed, after all considering all the stuff that was watched, listened to, or downloaded. Believe it or not, this is the "easy" part of mobile data consumption to manage.
The tricky part is the "hidden" side of mobile data consumption - or the so called Background Data Transfer.
What is background data and why is it being transferred?
A whole new generation of "Cloud" enabled services like DropBox, Apple's iCloud, and Google's Play are meant to make your life easier by synchronizing all your content across all your devices. For example, iCloud will attempt to upload or download content both to and from your iPad, iPhone, iPod, or Mac, so you have instant access to to everything you need. Overall, this is a fantastic idea. There's just one problem...
These apps and services manage the transfer of data behind the scenes. Keeping all these files synced up sometimes requires uploading and downloading hundreds of megabytes per hour.
At home or at work, this is no problem - after all, wired broadband networks for the most part are truly "Unlimited". Download 50 Gigabytes in a single month, you're going to pay the say monthly bill as if you used just a single megabyte. Let those background apps go crazy for all you care. No worries.
So what about mobile devices?
When mobile devices, like Tablets and Smartphones are connected to 3G or 4G wireless networks, those apps and services that run in the background have the sense to shut down - or at least curtail the transferring of files across 3G or 4G wireless networks.
So whats the deal with this warning about mobile hotspots?
A mobile hotspot acts as a "bridge" to the web. Your mobile devices, like Laptops and tables, have no way (on their own) to tell the the difference between a WiFi connection on a Wired Network (like at home) versus that based on a 3G or 4G wireless connection.
And now, here's the "Problem" - Those background-data-hungry apps and services DO NOT disengage when on Wi-Fi networks. When you're using a mobile hotspot like the MiFi to access the web, your computer can't see that you're really on a wireless network.
Beyond background usage, other apps tend to use more data when they believe they’re on Wi-Fi. Apps like YouTube and Pandora will stream higher-quality content when connected to Wi-Fi. What all of this means is that the data on a hotspot can be used up in record time!
Compounding matters further is the fact that some services run in the background without the option to disable them over cellular networks. This is much more of a problem on Android, where apps and their abilities aren’t as limited as on iOS, but it can impact users of any platform. Without some sort of universal kill switch in place to manually restrict background usage, users are limited in their options: They can choose between disabling data entirely or living with the lost data.
Here are 6 Tips to help recognize and "work-around" the problem:
1) Become aware which internet connected services and apps operate in the background. File synchronization activities are usually the most prevalent. For example, Dropbox.com will attempt to "sync" your local device content with their online digital locker. Apple's iCloud is another culprit (for mobile hotspot users that is)
2) After identifying apps and services that operate in the background, familiarize yourself with how to turn off, or modify the background operation. You may want to take the opportunity to turn off as many services as possible on mobile devices, such as an iPad or laptop that will be connecting to the web through a mobile hotspot. All of these apps and services offer the ability to "Turn Off". In a worst-case scenario, you could manually "turn on" the app only when you know you're on a wired connection. Here is a good thread that has some clever ideas.
3) Every mobile provider has an online tool or build-in feature on the hotspot to show how much data was consumed over a period of time. Some are real-time, while others are updated every 24 hours or so. On days you are sure you have little of no "actual user" usage of your mobile hotspot, but were sure to leave your mobile hotspot powered on, login and check the "data meter". If possible, do this for 2 or 3 days and look at the average data consumed. If you see data usage more than perhaps a megabyte,it's very likely you have some background processes that are alive and kicking, spewing data back and forth across wireless connections. There are several free and paid apps on the Android and Apple App stores that can precisely measure data uploaded and downloaded over a fixed period of time.
4) For users of "Jailbroken" iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad, as well as "rooted" (similar to JailBroken) Android devices, a few very useful "Cydia" type apps (those you won't find on the App Store) are available to allow you to tweak the devices settings to prevent selected Wi-Fi connections from offering up their bandwidth in an all-you-can-eat manner, so also allow you to selectively block certain apps from using outbound wireless and/or WiFi connections
5) Make it a habit of powering your mobile hotspot OFF when you're using it at the moment. While this solution will not prevent unwanted background data transfer while you are working, bit it will greatly reduce the likelihood of an app or service running amok all day or night, while racking up huge data overuse charges on your 3G or 4G broadband service. Make sure it's "powered down", not just in a black-screen sleep mode, as background data leakage can still occur.
6) Lastly, most Wi-Fi enabled devices, including tablets and laptops have a way to set the Wi-Fi network "Priority". If you're docked and working at home or the office, always make sure the fixed Wi-Fi network is set to a higher connection priority than the mobile hotspots WiFi signal. This will ensure your device uses the stationary Wi-Fi rather than the mobile hotspot, perhaps saving you from a big broadband data bill.
Of course, there’s one more solution. Instead of forcing users to rely on workarounds that aren’t always effective, device manufacturers could take the initiative to make connections more intelligent. This could mean Google and Apple changing the way that their operating systems work, or it could mean hotspots or implementations of new controls by the makers of hotspots. Either way, somehow signaling to devices connected to hotspots that the connection they are on is, in fact, a cellular connection would solve this dilemma.
Such a solution seems unlikely, though. Carriers are in business to make money, and they’re currently making record sums of money both off of data plans and the fees that accompany them when users exceed their allotment. The best bet for users is to know what their data cap is and proactively monitor their usage. Users won’t entirely stop the bleeding through this tracking, but they will shield themselves from a worst-case scenario of hitting their data limit