No matter how careful you are, you will inevitably but accidentally use way more data than you realized or thought possible on some future occasion. With blazing fast LTE speeds becoming the norm, it's entirely possible to blow through a whole month's allowance of cellular data before you even realize it.
It is tempting to immediately blame your internet provider and to disclaim all personal responsibility.
We hear it all the time - “there’s no way I could have used that much data!”
Heck, we’ve said it ourselves when notified of high usage.
But in reality, screwed up accounting behind the scenes is only occasionally to blame.
Very often some forensic digging finds the real guilty party. We have seen OS updates and iTunes ignore “auto download” settings, upgrades to Google’s Photos silently opt-in to “backup all photos to the cloud,” and even an Xbox One turn itself on in the middle of the night to download a huge 4GB update with no disclosure or warning given.
If you find yourself starting to get overage charges from your carrier, or approaching your bandwidth cap much quicker than usual - here are some of the common bandwidth hogs we hear about. Look at these and see if you can find your culprit.
You can also use these tips to double check and perhaps preemptively avoid a surprise before the end of your billing month.
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It's the single biggest bandwidth hog most people regularly encounter.
Make sure you have your video streaming services set to use the lowest amount of bandwidth you can tolerate - this can save many GBs. By default, many of the services deliver the highest quality video your current speed can handle.
Remember, a HD video stream can use 2-7 GB per hour. If you don't absolutely need HD, this is an easy area to cut back on data usage.
- For more tips on saving data, here's our guide: TV & Movie Entertainment on the Road: Tips for Streaming, Downloading & Alternatives
Make sure you have auto-downloads of system and software updates turned OFF. You'll find the settings scattered through various software preferences, but it's well worth the time to investigate. Save updates for when you have unlimited internet!
A big OS update might be a couple gigabytes in size. Wait and download these later if you can. A smartphone OS update might auto-trigger the first time you're on WiFi (regardless if your WiFi is a capped cellular plan), and restore all your photos, apps & data from the cloud.
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. Do not leave these devices plugged in to mobile internet unless you are keeping a close eye on them.
Even if you do have auto updates turned off, or set only to use while you are on WiFi - these settings sometimes get ignored. And of course, if you're broadcasting your cellular data over your own WiFi network - your other devices might not be able to tell the difference.
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
- Apples Forces free album download
Even if you think you have the settings tuned just right, things can easily get messed up – sometimes causing repeated attempts at partial syncing and upload. Or a software update overwrites your previous settings, forcing automatic updates again.
Be very careful when you load a webpage with a video on it. If it autoplays, it’s very likely caching faster than you can watch it. Meaning if you click away partway through the video, you’ve already spent the data – regardless if you actually saw the whole thing. Even if you click “Pause” or “Stop,” it often still caches in the background.
And of course, turn off auto video playback in as many places as you can.
- Member Guide: Optimizing Social Media Browsing for Minimal Data Usage – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram
Cloud Syncing - Backups, Photos & Subscriptions
Pause auto-syncing to your cloud-based services.
Cloud backup services, like DropBox, auto sync files continuously update by default. Instead - consciously decide when you want to sync to backup services. Even still, it's possible for a large file to get 'stuck' and attempt to resync multiple times which chews up your bandwidth. Also, when working with large files, sometimes it's best to bring the file down locally and periodically back it up to the cloud yourself. We've hit our caps in the past by making this mistake, as a 250MB graphics file being backed up with every change will burn through data very fast.
Manage Subscriptions. If you are subscribed to podcasts, TV series, or any other periodical 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 the 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 on only one of your devices. No sense having three copies of something!
Manage your photo syncing - in programs like Google Photos, iPhotos, or others. Syncing all of your photos over capped bandwidth will chew through data like crazy. As photos get larger and larger, these consume more and more data. We've seen photo syncing apps chew through 10-20GB a DAY in the past.
Apps & WiFi
WiFi Assist: Many phones now have a feature called 'WiFi Assist' that uses your cellular data if they encounter poor WiFi. This can unintentionally chew through your data. We recommend turning this feature OFF.
- Here's more information: “Wi-Fi Assist” Improves Your Life, May Eat Into Your Data Plan
A lot of apps, unless they are specifically designed for mobile usage, are built with the assumption that data is unlimited. Even when they appear to be idle, some apps are actually burning through data in the background - downloading updates, content that you may never even view, or even updating advertising for quicker display later. Be careful of what you leave running in the background!
If you have a WiFi hotspot that is powered by cellular data, you need to be extra careful about lurking data hogs on your phones and tablets. A lot of mobile apps are conservative if they know they are on cellular data, but they have no way to know that your WiFi network is actually cellular powered. Many apps save their uploading and downloading for the first hint of WiFi, and there might be a backlog waiting the next time you connect to a WiFi network.
Tracking Your Data Usage
To determine how much data you use, and avoid surprise overages or accidental account suspensions, you need to keep on top of your data usage. Most internet providers give their customers a way to check usage directly with them – either via a customer login account online, an app, or sending a text message on smartphones. Check with your carrier for instructions on how to do this for each of your devices.
Set it up, and get in the routine of checking each of your internet sources throughout the month to make sure you’re staying within your quotas.
Some devices also have 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 also allow you to see data usage by app on your phone (it is generally found in the Settings area of your phone), but you might need to reset this tracking every billing period manually to keep on top of it.
If you don’t have an easy way to tap into your carriers usage metering in real time, you’ll need to track it on your own.
Tracking your own independent usage can also help you figure out if you have a rogue program sucking up bandwidth – such as a sync to the cloud or a large update downloading. And if there’s an unexplained spike in usage on your carrier’s reporting, you can go back to your logs and see if it’s accurate or perhaps an erroneous report that you need to refute with the carrier.
Or if you suspect your carrier is misreporting your usage, the only way you can prove it is by having your own independent accurate data logs.
- There are multiple ways to independently track your usage - ranging from 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.
Other Bandwidth Saving Tips
If you ever accidentally blow through your data caps on your primary cellular account, it is extremely useful to have a secondary way online to help you limp through to the end of the month when your caps reset.
And of course, nothing beats having an unlimited data plan, so you don't have to worry about data caps.
Most carriers have also recently switched their tiered data plans so that when you reach your cap, there are no overages - your speeds just slow down. It may be worth switching to one of these plans if you're constantly hitting your data cap and don't want to risk overage charges.
Additional resources for researching data plans: