Everyone knows how long a minute is. And your cellphone carrier keeps close tabs on how many you have used this month. Now, in the smartphone era, more people are being forced to think about how many megabytes of data they are using.
But what, exactly, is a megabyte?
If a sampling of pedestrians on the streets of New York is any guide, most people have only a vague idea. One said a megabyte was “the amount of something we have to use the Internet.” Miranda Popkey, 24, was closer: “It’s a measure of how much information you store. If there are too many of them, I can’t send my email attachment.”
A megabyte is, in this context, 1,000 kilobytes — or about the size of a photo taken with a decent digital camera, or roughly one minute of a song, or a decent stack of email.
Therein lies the problem: Counting things like minutes and text messages is fairly easy, but there is no intuitive or natural way to gauge data use.
The carriers say they are doing their best to help customers keep tabs on their data diet. But the potential for confusion — and unexpected charges — is growing as people upgrade to faster devices running on faster networks.
Even the most sophisticated of mobile customers can be tripped up — people like Paul DeBeasi, a research vice president at Gartner specializing in wireless technology. He said that he once streamed a Netflix movie to his iPad and was charged extra for exceeding his data plan limit.
DeBeasi did the math and found that watching two hours of a standard-definition Netflix video consumes two gigabytes — or 2,000 megabytes — of data.
“Even if you’re just watching a standard-definition movie and you’re only watching five movies in a month, it’s costing you $100 just to watch those five movies,” he said. DeBeasi suggested using Wi-Fi networks whenever possible, as this does not run up your carrier’s data meter.
A vast majority of smartphone owners do not come near their data limits, many studies say. But data use is predicted to climb considerably over the next few years. Cisco, the networking company, recently published a study showing that mobile data more than doubled in 2011, and it predicts that by 2016 it will have grown by a factor of 18.
The 4G effect
Faster fourth-generation or 4G networks are driving that increase. The faster speeds encourage customers to use more data-intensive applications like video, so a smartphone on a 4G network is likely to generate 50 percent more traffic than it would on a slower one, Cisco says. The 4G-ready model of the latest iPad is potentially a data hog, given that its big, extra-high-resolution screen makes high-definition video streams especially tempting.
And soon your personal data plan may not be the only one you will have to worry about. Verizon and AT&T have said they are working on data plans that can be shared among multiple devices, similar to family plans for cellphones. That means parents will not only have to keep an eye on the number of text messages and phone calls their children are burning through, but also the amount of video, music and games they are streaming over the cellular network.
Michael Weinberg, senior staff lawyer of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group that advocates more transparency in the billing from telecommunications companies, goes as far as to question why smartphone customers even have to pay more to use more data. He said the carriers have not provided evidence that limiting the amount of data a person uses reduces congestion. He added that there was a disconnect between what the carriers’ advertisements say and what customers can really do with their data allowances.
“There’s a problem with understanding exactly what the data means in the real world, and also matching up some of the advertising that networks do with the actual reality,” Weinberg said. “You have these ads with people doing things like Facebook and watching videos, and you realize how quickly you can burn through it.”
Public Knowledge hosts a website called What is My Cap? that explains to people how much video and music they can enjoy before they hit their data limits for each carrier. AT&T and Verizon offer different tiers of data plans. AT&T, for example, charges $20 for 300 megabytes of data on its 3G network, $30 for three gigabytes or $50 for five. Customers who go over the limits on the costlier plans are charged $10 for each extra gigabyte.
T-Mobile USA prices its data, minutes and text messages as a single package; one of its plans includes unlimited voice and text messages and two gigabytes of high-speed data for $60 a month; once customers exceed that, their connections are slowed. Similar to T-Mobile, Sprint prices its data, minutes and text messages as a single package, with plans starting at $70 a month. It still offers unlimited data but charges an extra $10 a month for it as a “premium.”
Some cellphone users still have older “unlimited” plans from carriers other than Sprint — but AT&T and Verizon enforce throttling, or slowing of data speeds, for customers who they determine are using the most.
Kept in the dark?
Schwark Satyavolu, chief executive of Truaxis, a company that offers tools for consumers to manage their utility bills, said it was in the best interest of carriers like AT&T and Verizon to keep consumers in the dark.
“They make more money if they don’t inform you of anything,” Satyavolu said. “Their interest is in not informing you and having you go over.”
AT&T and Verizon dispute that, saying they offer several ways for customers to monitor their data. For example, each has a website with a data calculator so people can see how much data a specific activity uses. Verizon customers can register with a service called My Verizon to get alerts when they have reached a certain percentage of their monthly data allowance.
“We do our best to provide the tools customers need to manage their wireless services,” Brenda Raney, a Verizon spokeswoman, said by email. “There is no sustainable business model based on customer confusion.”
AT&T customers also can check how much data they use online. On its website, AT&T says it alerts customers when they approach their data limit — but in some cases, as when they are watching a movie, users could miss an alert.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to make it as easy as possible for our customers to understand how much data they are using at any given time,” said Emily Edmonds, an AT&T spokeswoman.