Data Usage over Mobile Internet
Mobile internet can come with considerations you may not be used to if you've only ever relied on hard-wired internet access.
This could include limitations on data usage (yes, even on an "unlimited" data plan) or variable speeds that can impact how much you can actually get done online.
Regardless of how careful you are about data usage when traveling in your boat, RV or other nomadic vessel, you could quite likely use way more data than you realized.
With blazing fast speeds on some mobile options, it's entirely possible to blow through a whole month's worth of cellular data allowance before you realize it.
In this guide we hope to provide you with the info necessary to locate a data hog in your set-up, preemptively avoid a surprise limitation and navigate around slower speeds by reducing your usage.
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Know How Much Data You’re Using
To determine how much data you use and to avoid surprise overages or accidental throttling, you would be wise to set up a way to track data usage.
Most internet providers give their customers a way to check usage directly through their system – either via a customer login account online, an app or by request. Check with your service provider for instructions on how to do this for each of your devices and plans.
Some devices have a built-in usage tracking right on the device. Many modern mobile hotspots make this really easy and display your usage and limits right on the control panel screen, or even via a companion smartphone app. The device retrieves the carrier’s report of how much data has been used so far in the billing period for display.
Most phones allow you to see data usage used by your phone directly on your phone. This report is generally found in the Settings area of your phone. You might need to reset this tracking every billing period manually to keep it relevant to a data reset period.
If your provider doesn't provide a way to track usage, you’ll need to track your usage on your own.
- There are multiple ways to independently track your usage: apps, software programs and built-in features on routers. We have an entire section covering many options, including links to tools, in our guide on Assessing Your Mobile Internet Needs.
We highly recommend utilizing more than one of the above methods of data tracking. Tracking is the only way you'll be able to understand your usage - and track down spikes.
Data Usage Seem High?
Tracking your usage can aide in determining if you have a rogue program sucking up bandwidth – such as a sync to the cloud or a large update downloading.
If there’s an unexplained spike in usage on your carrier’s reporting, but you've been tracking usage by another means you can go back to your secondary logs and see if they match up with the carrier's.
If you suspect your carrier is misreporting your usage, the best way begin the process of refuting their report is to have your own independent, accurate data logs.
However, rarely does it turn out that inaccurate reporting by the carrier is the culprit - it's usually some of the common data hogs that can take us all by surprise if we're not careful.
Common Data Hogs and Reducing Data Usage
So your data usage seems high. Or you're in an area where you're getting super slow speeds and just can't accomplish what you need to do online.
There are certain activities that can really gobble up data very quickly - we call them Data Hogs.
Some common Data Hogs are activities you choose to do, like media streaming and online gaming.
But there are also processes that may run in the background of your system(s) that you may not think about, or even know are running, that can use up heaps of data. System updates, automatic updates, and cloud syncs can be big Data Hogs.
In this section we'll talk about things you can adjust to help you keep your data usage in check.
Streaming can use up a LOT of data. A high definition video stream can use 2-7 GB per hour. And it needs speeds of around 5-10 Mbps to stream without buffering or pixelation.
Setting the playback setting on your video streaming services to use the lowest amount of bandwidth you can tolerate can save significant data and reduce buffering when on slower connections. If you don't absolutely need HD, this is an easy area to cut back on data usage. Check with your streaming provider for specific instructions on how to do this.
Another good practice is to download any movies or TV shows you want to watch ahead of time while you're connected to a fast unlimited data source- such as the Wi-Fi network of a campground or marina, restaurant, library or maybe even a friend's house. Or when you have a fantastic cellular signal on an unlimited data plan. Then you can enjoy your favorite shows without worrying about how much data it's eating through.
For specific tips related to saving data while streaming, see our full guide:
System and app auto updates can unexpectedly launch your monthly data usage through the roof, and slow down your connection for other tasks, if you're not careful.
A strong suggestion if you're at all concerned about data usage:
Make sure you have auto downloads of system and software updates turned OFF. Completely.
Save updates for when you can manually allow them over a fast unlimited internet connection!
Keep in mind that the devices connected to your personal Wi-Fi network are not aware of the internet source you are currently using. If you've allowed automatic updates, they tend to perform as soon as your device is connected to a Wi-Fi network. If your internet source is capped - such as a cellular data plan, or limited bandwidth provided with your campsite - you can burn through that data quickly.
You'll find the settings for auto updates and downloads scattered through various software preferences, but it's well worth the time to investigate where they are on your specific software. You may even find some systems allow you to mark your internet source as being 'metered' - which will limit the bandwidth they consume.
A big operating system (OS) update can use a couple gigabytes of data. Controlling when these take place can be the key to your sanity.
Game consoles, Blu-ray players, and even some smart TVs can use up to a ton of data silently, in the middle of the night, downloading updates too. Do not leave these devices connected to your network unless you are keeping a very close eye on them - or have limitless data.
Even if you do have auto updates turned off, or set only to use while you are on Wi-Fi - these settings sometimes get ignored. The joys of tech, right?
Here are some historic examples of forced software updates that caught mobile users off guard:
- Huge Auto-Download Windows 10 “Anniversary Update”
- iOS 8 user caught off guard with 2GB Download
- Apple Forces a free album download
Even if you think you have the settings tuned just right, things can easily get messed up.
And, be aware that a software update can overwrite your previous settings, allowing for unrestricted automatic updates again. Make sure to check your auto-update settings after any operating system (OS) updates, and double check routinely.
Cloud Syncing: Backups, Photos & Subscriptions
Cloud-based services - where an application and/or data are dependent on an internet server - are great. As long as 'the cloud' is working and you have the data to support the updates.
Whenever you use a cloud service - ask yourself what you would do if you couldn't access your stored data for an hour, a day, a week? Being on mobile internet means you might not be able to access the cloud when you need to. It also means that you could use a lot of data syncing between your devices and the cloud platform.
When it comes to pictures and video, cloud syncing can quickly consume many gigabytes of data.
Pausing auto-syncing to your cloud-based services is one way to control this data use.
Cloud backup services: Cloud services like DropBox auto-sync files that continuously change by default. This means that editing a video or large photo that is stored in the cloud could use GBs of data with every change you make. Instead of permitting this - turn the auto-sync feature off.
When working with large files, sometimes it's best to bring the file down locally and periodically back it up to the cloud yourself.
Forgetting to manual back-up your important files for lengthy periods of time could lead to heartbreak if something horrible happens to your device - like a loss, or destruction.
It's also possible for a large file to get 'stuck' due to a finicky connection and attempting to re-sync multiple times. This could chew up your bandwidth. You've really got to be one top of checking and double checking this process.
For more on this topic, see our guide:
- Manage Subscriptions: If you are subscribed to podcasts, TV series, or any other periodic content through programs like iTunes, be extra vigilant that you are not auto-downloading new episodes in the background. Save the downloading for when you have access to uncapped bandwidth, or consciously choose when you use that data.
- Tip: If you have multiple computers and devices, make sure that they aren’t duplicating downloads. If you are subscribed to a podcast that you want to download new episodes of, make sure that you are doing so to the device you consume the content on. No sense having three copies of something!
- Manage your photo syncing: In programs like Google Photos or iPhotos - syncing all of your photos over capped bandwidth will chomp through data like crazy. As photo files get larger and larger, they consume more and more data.
Auto Playback (also known as auto-play) is a feature used by some websites and apps that contain embedded videos where the video or audio element starts playing, automatically, without user choice.
Be very careful when you load a webpage or open an app that might have videos on it, or even advertising that is video based.
Social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok commonly feature a lot of videos - and typically employ auto playback by default.
If a video auto plays, it’s very likely caching faster than you can watch it. Even if you click away partway through the video, you’ve already spent the data – regardless of you actually watching the whole thing. Even if you click “Pause” or “Stop,” the video often still caches in the background.
Turning off auto playback in as many places as you can can help you minimize the data used.
We have a guide dedicated to optimizing data usage for social media apps, here:
Some phones have a feature called 'Wi-Fi Assist'. This feature uses your cellular data if when you encounter a poor Wi-Fi experience. Utilizing Wi-Fi assist can unintentionally chew through your data - you might not even realize you've been booted from the coffee shop's Wi-Fi onto your cellular data plan while you're watching that hilarious cat video.
We recommend turning this feature OFF.
- Here's more information: “Wi-Fi Assist” Improves Your Life, May Eat Into Your Data Plan
When compared with video streaming, gaming is generally a lower-bandwidth activity. However, if you do a lot of it, the usage can still add up.
If you're a big gamer, taking some minor steps to reduce your data may still allow you to enjoy exploring (and conquering!) that new level, or beating up on your opponent the while not going over your data limits.
Things like downloading games and/or updates to those games when you are contacted to broadband or a unmetered Wi-Fi connection instead of doing it on your cellular connection will save you big gigs. Initial game installs often come with large updates or patches, gobbling up big chunks of data right off the bat.
If your gaming console allows it, you may also consider turning off auto downloads and updates - with a plan to process these when you're connected to an unlimited fast data source.
For more in depth tips on gaming and data use, see our full guide:
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Smartphone Data Saving Settings
Tips on reducing data usage on your smartphone - from turning off background app refreshing, to data minimizing settings.
Settings you can make on your computer to reduce data usage.
Blowing Through Your Data?
So what if you blew through your data cap.. now what?
Summary: Keeping an Eye on your Data Usage
Keeping an eye on your data usage is important if you're on a data-restricted plan, but it's also a good idea even if you're on an "unlimited" plan.
Tracking your data use on a frequent basis can help prevent you from inadvertently using up all of your monthly data allotment, or hitting network management limits on "unlimited" plans.
Navigating your devices system preferences, while frustrating at times, can be a data saver in the end. And being sure to do 'device settings' check-ups semi-frequently is a best practice way of not getting burned by a data hog.
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