Five ways to lower your smartphone’s data bill

by Brad Spirrison

Data plans for smartphones are not what they used to be. As more consumers operate apps, games and videos from their iPhones, Androids and other handheld devices, cellular carriers are raising data prices and at times restricting what heavy users can do on their networks.

In January, AT&T ended its $15-per-month 200MB data plan, leaving T-Mobile alone among the four major U.S. carriers (which also include Verizon and Sprint) that has a data deal that will cost you less than 20 bucks each month. But even the 200MB “Simple” plan offered by T-Mobile for $10-per-month only provides about one-third of the data consumed by the average 24-to-35-year-old cellular customer, according to Nielsen.

So larger data plans and overage fees will force many moderate users to pay between $20 and $50-per-month (note that there are still cheaper plans for less data-heavy feature phones). Even some heavier users grandfathered into unlimited data plans are seeing slower connections after consuming 2GB of data in a month through a practice called throttling.

So whether you are a data hog or newer smartphone user just getting a feel for your device, here are five simple steps to keep your cellular consumption down and data bills low.

Connect to Wi-Fi whenever possible

While this may seem like an obvious remedy to many, according to Nielsen only 50 percent of smartphone owners access wireless Internet connections in a given month. As most smartphone owners already pay for wireless Internet access in their homes, it is an absolute no-brainer to use Wi-Fi whenever possible for data-intensive tasks like downloading apps, streaming videos and participating in multiplayer social games. Not only is Wi-Fi faster, but using it will not factor into any of your cellular data consumption capacity.

Make sure to adjust the Settings in your smartphone and confirm a connection to your home Wi-Fi network. Your device should automatically reconnect whenever you are in an approved network’s vicinity. Also make sure to adjust settings for Wi-Fi networks available at your workplace that you are approved to use, as well as other locations that have Wi-Fi where you spend a lot of time. There are also useful apps available for iPhones and Android devices that will point you to businesses and locations in your area that offer free Wi-Fi.

Get a grip on how much cellular data you are consuming

It’s helpful to understand how much data you consume from your provider in a given month and over time. On the one hand, there is no need to pay $50 per-month for 5GB of data if you are using less than 2GB and can access a cheaper plan. On the other hand, if your plan is too low, you might be hit with a penalty that doubles your monthly cost merely by sending out one email too many. While the Federal Communications Commission will require all cellular carriers by October 18 to alert users when they are approaching their plan limits for voice, data and texts, there are several ways to be more proactive.

If you have the patience, try calling your carrier to discuss plans that are a better match for you and your family given historical usage activity. Carriers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint (requires log-in) provide tools on their sites to calculate and plan data usage. You can also get data consumption records on many devices. For iPhones, go to General section within Settings and scroll down to Usage. This is like a stopwatch and starts and stops when you designate it to. So try going a week or even 30 days to get a full picture. Android owners who have the most recent version of the operating system known as Ice Cream Sandwich can access real-time consumption information. As well, there are apps available for iPhones and Androids that all track and monitor data consumption.

Turn off GPS tools and other apps when not using them

Oftentimes your smartphone is running tools like its Global Positioning System when there is no obvious need to do so. This not only drains your battery, but could also unnecessarily add to your data consumption. Depending on your device, you may need to proactively deactivate and reactivate GPS tools within your Settings when needed. Also, make sure there are no hidden applications running in the background of your device like Internet radio stations and daily deal services. Android phones in particular are susceptible to this. Accordingly, apps like Advanced Task Killer are worth having to make sure you are only running apps and programs on your phone that you want at any given point of time.

Avoid smartphones that have features you don’t need

There is a bit of a chicken or egg component here, but it is true that users with super-advanced smartphones tend to consume more data than those who own basic models. While the iPhone 4S has only been available for a few months, a report by Atlanta-based marketing firm Arieso reveals that owners of the new iPhone use twice as much data as those equipped with older iPhone 4s. Further, they use nearly three times as much data as iPhone 3G owners. On the Android side, the Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY (popular with gamers) and the HTC Desire are among the biggest data-consuming smartphones. It is logical that heavy data consumers will flock to the most advanced devices, so owning the newest and shiniest toy does not necessarily mean you will increase consumption. However, if you are trying to reduce data consumption and can live without the luxury of speaking into your phone to find the nearest dry cleaners, you may want to pick up a more modest device.

Be smart when social

According to documents filed by Facebook in advance of the company’s initial public offering, more than 425 million users accessed the social network from their mobile devices in December 2011 alone. Many of us are tapping into the Facebook app multiple times per day. If you must feed your Facebook fix, consider downloading official and unofficial clients of the service that do specific things like chat and don’t necessarily require all of the data that comes with the full application. Like to Tweet? Services like TweetDeck (recently acquired by Twitter) have been known to consume less data than the official Twitter branded app. Also, save Skype and YouTube video sharing for Wi-Fi connections. A half-hour of video streaming could consume one month’s worth of data, depending on your plan.