Free WiFi, limiting real time viewing helps keep cellphone data charges in line

MONTREAL – Tired of paying $50 in extra fees each month for going over his cellphone data plan limits, Mischa Karam finally upgraded to a more expensive package to cover his video streaming and podcast habits.

Karam, a musician and band manager from Montreal who relies on his iPhone while he spends his days on the road, now pays $100, up from $65 a month.

“So you say, ‘OK, I will pay this fixed amount every month to have this piece of mind so that I’m not going to have any fees’, rather than curb your usage, which would probably be healthier,” said the 29-year-old with a laugh.

“I know way more people who have just decided to pay to have bigger plans after paying fees for going over (their plans,)” said Karam.

Deciding on the right cellphone plan for talk time, texting and data usage can be confusing for consumers. Not only do carriers offer dozens of different combination plans but their usage measurement, in gigabytes and megabytes, is almost impossible to grasp.

“How much bandwidth of data does it take to stream five minutes of video from YouTube on your phone?” asked Karam. “I have no idea.”

That confusion often ends up benefitting the carriers through billing customers for going over data limits, or from consumers paying for high data plans that exceed what they actually use.

Some relief from the shock of receiving cellphone bills with outrageous charges for exceeding limits will come to an end on Monday, when the CRTC’s new wireless code will cap extra data charges at $50 per month and $100 monthly for international roaming charges.

But there are ways to help keep a lid on data charges. Technology analyst Duncan Stewart says the basic rule of thumb is that video uses the most data, followed by pictures and general web browsing.

Text messages uses almost no data, said Stewart, director of research in technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte Canada.

Other ways to limit data consumption include connecting to free WiFi networks when available, or putting the mobile phone on “airplane mode” which disables it temporarily, he said.

Prof. Roel Vertegaal, of Queen’s University, suggests Facebook enthusiasts limit their daily postings, especially loading photographs, on the social media network.

“It’s so easy to load all of the pictures in Facebook and that’s what people use their mobile phones for these days,” said Vertegaal, who teaches at the school of computing in Kingston, Ont.

He also suggested music fans who buy from Apple’s iTunes store should download the songs first to a computer. By syncing your phone to your computer, the download won’t using up cellphone data, he said.

For their part, wireless carriers said they send notifications to customers when they are near or over their data usage limits, domestically and internationally.

Bell, Telus and Rogers also have data calculators to help customers select their plans and monitor data usage.

Canadian tech company Sandvine has followed global Internet traffic trends for a decade. Its recent study shows that YouTube and the online video service Netflix account for more than half of Internet traffic during peak evening hours.

Limiting entertainment in real time will cut down on bandwidth use, said Sandvine CEO Dave Caputo, from Waterloo, Ont.

Caputo looks to developers, hoping they will get create apps that provide updates on data consumption.

“It would be great if there was an Energy Star-like rating for applications for how much bandwidth they consume,” he said.

Tips on how to stay within your monthly cellphone data limit:

1. Use free Wi-Fi as often as possible.

2. Occasionally put the phone on airplane mode, temporarily disabling it.

3. Make sure apps aren’t running in the background, using data unknowingly.

4. Turn off cellular data while travelling.

5. Get a local SIM card, or travel plan, from your wireless carrier to reduce roaming charges when travelling.

6. Monitor data usage.