Almost every major mobile carrier in the world implements data throttling for clients with unlimited data plans. Data throttling is the technique used by data carriers to limit bandwidth. To the end user, this means agonizingly slow connection speeds.
If you are on an unlimited plan that’s throttled once you exceed certain limits or you have a data cap, as most people do, this article offers practical advice on how to avoid throttling.
Why Do Carriers Throttle Bandwidth, Am I Affected & Is It Legal?
A broadband speed test will usually alert you to the possibility that you are being throttled. Carriers do this to prevent one individual or a few people clogging up the network. When a few users generate a massive load on the network, the result is slow speeds for everyone. This is the justification for data caps.
Despite this seemingly clear logic, data throttling remains a sensitive and controversial issue. On the one hand, you have data carriers trying to keep their networks fast, and on the other you have data users who want to do whatever they please with their data plan. After all, why shouldn’t you get what you paid for?
The problem has been that mobile data carriers engage in false advertising. When customers buy unlimited data plans, they are rarely told that the contract includes a ‘fair usage’ policy. This policy is usually buried in illegible fine print on the website or printed marketing material. Often, the word ‘unlimited’ has an asterisk next to it with a corresponding footnote that merely states, “terms and conditions apply”. Most customers learn about the fair usage policy when their download speeds drop to a crawl.
False advertising is a serious concern worldwide and several mobile phone companies are now finding themselves on the wrong end of the law. For example, in 2012, AT&T was hauled to a small claims court by Matt Spaccarelli in Simi Valley, California. While awarding Matt $850, the judge noted that it was unfair for AT&T to limit data usage after selling an unlimited plan. Subsequently, AT&T announced that they were discontinuing their unlimited data plan.
Monitor Your Data Usage
One of the easiest ways to avoid being throttled is to keenly monitor your data usage. To start with, find out exactly how much your data plan provides. Depending on your location, this will range from 1 to 3GB. Armed with this information, several mobile apps can help you monitor your data usage.
Android 4.0 and above already features a data usage monitor offering several ways to track data usage. For example, it can give you a predicted usage based on the previous month’s usage. It even recommends a daily data cap. This gives you a fairly good idea of how much music you can stream and how many YouTube videos you can watch during the month. But in case your device is running a lower version of Android, the following free apps in Play Store are great; Onavo Count, 3G watchdog and My Data Manager.
Apple iOS also offers a way, albeit not very useful, to monitor your data usage by going to ->Settings ->General -> Usage -> Cellular Usage. Reset the statistics at the beginning of your billing period and then monitor your usage during the month. For more intelligent data stats, you need a free data usage app such as DataMonitor (requires Jailbreak) or Onavo Count [No longer available].
Avoid using the data carrier’s network any time you can use your own home network or office network. It not only helps conserve your data, but it is also more reliable since you are unlikely to hit a dead zone in one section of your home. Also, make it a habit to update all smartphone apps over Wi-Fi.
Minimize Streaming Services
YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, and other streaming services hog data. You can easily exhaust your data plan and find yourself throttled within the first few days of your billing period. If you have kids, you have to be very careful what they do on your mobile device when you don’t have Wi-Fi. These days, smartphones and tablet computers double up as kid boredom destroyers. Many popular Android & iOS games are bandwidth intensive. For example, games with detailed 3D graphics are bulky to download while games that rely on an active Internet connection to play use up loads of data. As a rule of thumb, avoid games that require you to interact and play with other people online.
Data compression is quickly becoming the method of choice to reduce bandwidth usage and generally speed up the Internet. This method works by sending an optimized version of content across the network. The latest Chrome browsers for Android (Ice Cream Sandwich) and iOS use data compression technology to reduce data usage and improve mobile web browsing. Google hosted proxy servers, aptly named SPDY (pronounced Speedy), optimize content before delivering it to your mobile device. To activate data compression go to “Settings -> Bandwidth Management -> Reduce data usage”. Only HTTP requests are routed via SPDY, secure connections are still routed directly to your mobile device. Google’s internal testing shows that the feature can decrease data usage by over 50% and significantly improve page loading times.
There are also several mobile apps that use similar methods to compress data. Onavo Extend, compresses your data by up to 500%. It is available for both Android (ICS) and iOS. Opera Browser for Android comes with an “Off Road” mode that uses cloud compression technology to reduce data usage and improve browsing speed.
Root Your Android Device, Modify the ROM & Delete the “Throttle Services” Files
Some data carriers rely on certain configurations in Android devices to cap data. These can be changed to scuttle throttling. When most of us think of data limitation, we think of it as occurring from the carrier’s side. This isn’t always the case; client-side data capping is more common than most of us believe. Deleting the “throttle services” files can work if the carrier is using client side data capping methods. In the US, T-Mobile & AT&T no longer use client side methods so this will not work there.
It may come as a surprise to learn that phone manufacturers occasionally work with carriers to make data capping easier. For example, in the US, AT&T had originally disabled HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access) on the HTC Inspire 4G and Atrix 4G before enabling it in April 2011.
A VPN service can help you evade throttling if your carrier only throttles peer-to-peer traffic. Encrypting your data prevents your carrier from seeing the contents of your traffic. The network can still see that you are moving large amounts of data, but they have no way of telling what kind of data it is. Take note that this may not work if your carrier has a data cap irrespective of the type of data. Hotspot Shield is an excellent free VPN app available on both Google Play and the App Store.
These tips should help you avoid being throttled. However, many people become victims of data limitation as a result of false advertising. Protect yourself by reading the marketing material from your mobile network keenly. Be particularly vigilant to read the small print to find out the upper limit at which the network starts to throttle your data.
Have you been a victim of throttling in the past? How do you manage your data usage? Let us know in the comments.