Reducing your data download costs

20 Aug

August 20, 2007

By Geoff Meeker

Smartphones are complex little machines that cost more (than cellular phones) to purchase and also to operate. This is because they transfer digital data back and forth, in addition to voice calls, and you will need to pay for this over and above your basic cellular call plan.

One of your first decisions then, upon purchasing a smartphone, is what sort of data download package to buy. This is similar to purchasing a monthly ‘call minutes’ package for your cell, the difference being that you purchase megabytes (mb) of data instead of minutes of time. Data prices (with Aliant – Rogers may differ) range from 4 mb per month for $25, to 40 for $75, to 500 for $200 and even 750 for $300. As with call minutes, the cost per mb goes down the more you purchase – the trick is in knowing how many to buy.

I spoke with Paul Pothier, Director of Wireless Sales with Aliant Mobility, for advice on keeping data costs under control.

“It can be difficult for the average person to understand,” Pothier said. “People don’t know how much data is contained in an email, a picture, a file attachment or whatever, so they don’t know if they need four mb or 40. We have a lot of history with these devices and our average customer uses somewhere between two and five mb per month. That’s probably 30 emails per day, and you will still be well inside the 4 mb plan. But if you’re going to open a lot of emails with files attached, or you are going to browse on the web a lot, then you could use much more than that.”

The four mb package is a good starting point, Pothier said, because you can monitor data usage on your monthly bill and upgrade to a larger package if necessary. The trick, he said, is managing data downloads to keep costs down, beginning with your email attachments, which have the potential of eating up many mb of data.

“When you receive and open an email, you are not downloading the attachments,” Pothier said. “You may see an icon that indicates an attachment, but the actual file is still on the server. So it is best to wait until you get home, if you can, before opening any attachments.”

Most of these devices have a setting to control how frequently they check for new email on the server, Pothier added. “Most of them can be set to check for email once per minute or even once per day. For most people, once every couple of hours is enough. Or you can check the email manually, whenever you are ready. This is the most cost-effective way to do it, since the process of checking for email actually uses data.

“Many devices also have the ability to modify how much of the message is sent… just the first 500 kb of the email instead of all of it. Most of the time, this is more than enough to get the gist of the message. If not, you can ask it to download the rest.”

If you browse the Internet, keep in mind that surfing for fun can quickly rack up your mb count. Unless you have money to burn, try to limit Internet usage to whatever is necessary for business or information gathering purposes. To quicken loading time and save data costs, most smartphone browsers impose limits on the functionality of web sites, allowing you to see the gist of the page without all the bells and whistles. But don’t download videos or mp3 files even where the technology allows it, as this will really drive up your data costs. (You can transfer these to the smartphone from your home computer with a small memory card or with wireless bluetooth technology.)

Some devices also work as tethered modems, by connecting to your laptop to enable full Internet access. This is a great feature but keep in mind that the data download pipe is now wide open, and you can burn up several hundred mb of data (worth hundreds of bucks) in a short period of time. Again, it’s best to use this connectivity only when necessary.

In a nutshell, the data download process can be expensive but when you really need it, it more than pays for itself.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at


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