23 Apr 2015

Mobile data in the US and solutions for laptop users

Mobile data is not free

Mobile data plans are usually limited. Let’s take the example of the US. We compared prices of the 3 major Mobile Networks: the average price for 1 GB is between 10 and 20 USD per GB, in the 1 to 5 GB plans category.

Sources: Main US phone carriers websites, April 2015: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile

What are the options?

As mobile users, we keep an eye on data consumption.  We want to avoid costly pay-as-you-go rates once data caps are reached. Solutions that can help to decrease our monthly bills are what we’re interested in. But how can we decrease mobile data consumption? There are a few options:

  1. Decrease surf usage
  2. Use data compression
  3. Block apps that consume high amounts of data

Changing habits to surf less, is the least desired option. It goes against the growing trends of using internet everywhere, anytime.

Data compression looked appealing to us. The technical solution seemed elegant: a VPN between the laptop/iPhone and the app developer’s server. Data privacy can be a concern however, as all data is routed through a 3rd party server. We tried different iOS apps like that on the App Store. After a few days of mobile use (e-mails, simple surf, news reading), we noticed that  the amount of data saved was fairly low, about 2 to 5%. Indeed, VPN solutions mainly compress pictures and video. They also don’t always compress secure HTTPS websites (e.g. FaceBook, Gmail, …).

The last option, blocking apps that consume data, is interesting. For example, we have that feature in the iPhone. Introduced in iOS 7, one can select apps that are allowed to use cellular data from the settings menu. That feature is easy to use : it shows a list of apps, their data consumption over a period, and an ON/OFF switch.

Saving mobile data by blocking iOS apps

Solutions exist to block apps on the Mac, but none are optimised to save data. It is possible with application firewalls, but it’s like using a hammer to kill a fly. They are overly powerful and complicated for the task. Even the name is downright scary for the non-tech savvy.

Laptop mobile data usage

Let’s look at Ericsson’s November 2014 report. Mobile PCs consumed 4.3 GB per month in average in 2014, compared to 0.9 GB for smartphones. (Ericsson defines Mobile PCs as “laptop or desktop PC devices with built-in cellular modem or external USB dongle”). That’s almost five times more data. The takeaway here is that laptops, when using mobile data, are likely to consume much more mobile data than smartphones.

Out of this, a third of it is eaten by “Software download & update”, “File Sharing”, and “Other” usage. These can be categorised into passive apps that don’t necessarily require constant attention from the user. Data traffic with those apps can also be the most difficult to block manually. Traffic might indeed happen in the background without informing the user.

 

Application mobile data traffic volumes by device typeSource:Ericsson Mobility Report June 2013

A solution for laptop users?

When using a personal hotspot, Macs (and other laptops) behave similarly as when connected to a Wi-Fi. And that is a big pain point for us.

iPhone mobile data consumption

By checking the cellular data usage menu in our iPhones, we noticed that approximately 3/4 of the data traffic was consumed by Personal Hotspost (tethering) sessions, done during our every day commute. We then started to analyze what was consuming so much data. We rapidly found out that all our cloud apps were consuming high amounts of data. E.g. Google Drive, DropBox, iCloud, SugarSync, etc.

This lead us to the creation of TripMode. Check out why we launched TripMode.