After spending several hours the last week exploring how to stay within the data cap on my smartphone plan, I’ve been wondering what people do when they’re tech amateurs. Not that I’m so savvy, but I will try to tackle problems.
Do other people just buy a more generous data plan? Do they have a young person around to help them?
Or are others — I’m thinking especially of other baby boomers — more knowledgeable about these matters than I am? I doubt it. I can think of at least a half-dozen people my age who consider themselves tech lightweights.
I came late to smartphones, as to most technological innovations. I bought my first, a budget Moto G, only three years ago. My $15-a-month Republic Wireless plan had no cell data and offered Internet access only via wi-fi. Finding Internet access spotty without a four-bar wi-fi connection, I mostly used the phone for calling and texting.
So, you could say that I wasn’t a real smartphone user until upgrading to a new phone and a 1GB cell data plan a couple of months ago. Republic Wireless said the plan was adequate for 80 percent of its subscribers, and since I didn’t anticipate doing much more with the new phone than with the old, I figured 80 percent includes me.
The reason for the upgrade was to be able to check emails when out of town. I haven’t been streaming music or videos or reading books on the phone. I don’t do Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, et al.
It stunned me then to get a warning halfway through the billing cycle that 75 percent of that month’s data had been used with 15 days to go.
So, I turned to my desktop computer — where I don’t have to worry about usage caps — to search for advice.
Maybe you already know that applications on an Android phone use background data even when you’re not using the apps. Gmail, for one, is continuously checking for new emails. Until the data usage problem came up, it never occurred to me that the amount of data consumed wasn’t totally in my control.
Maybe you also know that you can check Data Usage to find out how much data has been used in all and by each application during your billing period. My biggest data guzzler, Google Play Services, consumed a third of my data. No one consciously uses Google Play Services; it’s a background application that makes the phone run properly.
Somewhat better informed, I turned on the “restrict background data” option in Data Usage for all applications. Then my texting app stopped sending texts, a problem I didn’t connect with restricting background data until a Republic Wireless adviser said that restricting the background data of all apps causes some apps to misbehave.
With restrict background data back off, texts went through again, but the data usage problem was still there. To fix that, I could restrict background data application by application. I did so for Google apps except Play Services, which the Republic Wireless adviser said to leave alone because other apps depend on it. Chrome, my second-biggest data user, has a “data saver” option that I set. Even though no other apps used much data, I disabled useless apps (I have no need for the Japanese or Korean keyboards, for instance).
I also activated the setting in Google Play Store that allows apps to be auto-updated only with a wi-fi connection.
In a couple of weeks I’ll be taking a trip and will want to use maps. Before leaving, I need to learn how to save maps when on wi-fi to consult later without using data. Other apps allow you to cache data, too — which should be done when you’re connected to wi-fi.
Since this isn’t meant to be a how-to post, I won’t get into instructions. You can easily find them online by Googling “how to conserve smartphone data.” None of this is difficult to do. But you need to know that you should do it. Which brought me back to wondering: Was I a dope while everyone else is aware that they should be adjusting their phone settings?
An article on HuffPost in October 2016 said I was actually in the majority. Telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick wrote that “most customers have no clue about the settings on their wireless phone that could control their [data] use. . . . And not knowing how to use these different settings just makes more money for the wireless company.” Kushnick noted that advice about about how to conserve cell data “is far and few,” and mostly in tech magazines.
Overage charges are a growing problem, Kushnick said, citing a Pew Research study that found that more than one-third of smartphone customers sometimes maxed out their monthly data allotment.
Repeating that “almost no one has a clue” about “the intricacies” of phone settings, Kushnick asked three questions of those reading his article:
• “How many have gone through the apps that are on your phone, eliminating the ones you don’t want, which may actually be doing updates regularly — all being charged to your account?
• “Or how many have examined the details of how many of the apps are generating hefty amounts of usage because of the continuous uploads?
• “Have you ever looked for the WiFi setting or your cell phone usage?”
“Unfortunately,” he concluded, “our previous research on consumer behavior and customers’ knowledge of the charges they are paying show customers will just pay their bill and never look at any of the details.”
So, Kushnick confirmed that I wasn’t unusual in not knowing about this stuff. Probably what’s unusual is my degree of frugality. But I can’t believe others wouldn’t want to save money on their phone bills — if they were aware that they could.