How to manage your mobile data

No one likes the surprise cellular bill announcing that you’ve exceeded your data plan.  Most modern plans will provide unlimited use of talk and text while charging for a pool of data, so managing your organization’s use of data is the best way to control your costs.  A few weeks back, we published a post about which apps are eating up your mobile data plan, so this post, the sixth in our series Telecom Tip Tuesdays, is a set of tips to help.

How do I track my smartphone data usage?

How do I minimize my company mobile data?

How can I keep my mobile costs down?

Because everyone uses their phone differently, there is no one method for controlling your smartphone data usage.  However, we can break our advice up into three general topics: Simple Tips, Apps for Tracking Usage, and Apps for Managing Usage.  Depending on how your organization uses mobile data, you should find a few items in here to help you keep your data plan manageable.

Simple Tips

At Opticom, we have been helping our clients manage their mobile plans for the last twelve years, so we used our extensive experience and a little search to turn up some good tips on managing your data usage. There are some good articles out there, but most focus on individual smart phones.  Very few of them address the concerns of organizations that want to manage the pooled data of  several (or several hundred) phones and tablets on corporate plans.  We will address both in the list here.

  • Outline your policies – As with many other aspects of managing an organization, it really helps to be clear up front about what you consider acceptable use of organization-provided phones.  Organizations can usually be generous about employees’ use of talk and text, but you should set clear guidelines for app usage and data plan usage.
  • Monitor your bills – Getting on-line access to your cellular account will make available tools and reports for analyzing mobile data and pinpointing who is using it.  You can also subscribe to a Mobile Device Management (MDM) package, such as our Mobile Management Service, which provides monthly reports on usage. It’s best to monitor your usage a few days before the end of the billing cycle so that you can adjust your plan if there is a problem.
  • Watch for hotspot usage – Almost all modern smartphones and tablets can launch a “mobile hotspot” that will allow 5 or 10 WiFi devices share the phone’s mobile data connection.  This can be a boon for traveling employees who need to access legitimate resources on a laptop when there is no WiFi connection available.  Unfortunately, it can also eat up your data plan in a big hurry, especially if the employee is using video services such as YouTube or Netflix.  Most plans allow the organization administrator lock out this service on company phones, but if you choose to allow it, then you should also have clear policies and monitor usage.
  • Manage the apps – Apps are the applications (and games) that run on smartphones and tablets and these can be another source of data plan usage.  Again, most providers give the administrator the ability to disallow app downloads on organization-provided phones, but there are many apps that can be helpful to your organization.  If you decide to allow app downloads, you should have clear policies on what is acceptable and also monitor usage.  Also, there are some apps that come pre-loaded on phones – such as stock-ticker and sports apps – that can cause trouble for your data plan.  It can be difficult to remove them, but they can be disabled.
  • Use WiFi where possible – While smartphones and tablets are using a WiFi connection, they are not using mobile data plans, so all of your organization’s devices should be set to use WiFi when available.  If your organization’s corporate network is not WiFi enabled, you should consider getting a Wireless Access Point to allow mobile devices to use the network while employees are in the office.  Also, your employees should save all data-intensive tasks like streaming video or downloading and updating apps, for times when they are on a WiFi network.
  • Send pictures via text – As we discussed in our previous post on mobile data usage, messages that contain photos or video are sent via a cellular network service called MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), so these messages do not use the data plan.  Since most modern mobile plans charge for data and offer unlimited talk and text, it is a good practice to send pictures and short videos via text messaging rather than email.
  • Stop apps that use location data – Lots of apps use location data to provide directions, suggest locations, update traffic conditions or a host of other tasks, but watch for those apps that stay running in the background.  These apps will continue to load location data in the background, so they should be shut down when you’re not actively using them.

Apps for Tracking Usage

As we indicated earlier, it’s a good idea to keep track of your data usage on a monthly basis to avoid the unpleasant surprise overage bill.  However, very active smartphone users should stay on top of their usage all the time.  Well, as the saying goes – there’s an app for that.  We found some useful data management apps for individual users in a Wired Magazine article.  The four apps specifically mentioned for monitoring and managing your data usage were My Data Manager, DataMan, 3G Watchdog (which actually works on any network), and the aptly-named Data Usage.  All four should give you a pretty good idea of the data your phone is using every month.  Unfortunately, all four work on an individual basis, not oganization-wide, so it will track the data usage only for the phone that the app is installed on.

Apps for Managing Usage

There are also apps available to help you manage or reduce you data usage.  In the Wired Magazine article referenced above, we found an app called Onava Extend that will automatically compress all of the traffic sent across the network so that you are sending or receiving smaller files and using less data.  However, this app introduces some delay, so it can’t be used to help with the biggest data hogs, streaming video and streaming audio.

Another set of apps exist to help frequent travelers manage the data used by location services like maps and navigation.  As we discussed in our previous post, the GPS radio on a smartphone does not use mobile data, but loading the maps to track your position does.  These apps allow you to pre-load maps while you are using WiFi and use the maps for travel at a later time.  We should note that Google Maps will allow you to pre-load and save maps as well, but the app’s turn-by-turn directions will not work in offline mode so this feature cannot be used for navigation.

An Art, Not a Science

In our twelve years of managing clients’ cellular plans, we at Opticom have learned that keeping control of your mobile phone bills is more of an art than a science.  We have some great tools to track data usage and compare alternate plans in our Mobile Management Service, but the carriers are always changing their plans to maximize their revenue.  The best practice is to carefully monitor your organization’s data usage, adopt some of the data-saving practices we discuss in this post and adjust your cell plans when your needs change.

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