I often hear from clients that they went through their Internet bundle or data allocation way faster than expected. That bundle is gone! It was eaten by something, but what? It is irritating, and some even go as far as accusing their provider of stealing their data. But let’s keep a clear head and explore what the cause could be.
Just one thing before we continue; the below paragraphs were written with fixed home or SOHO Internet use in mind but applies just as well to mobile usage. The distinction is blurry as many people their phone connected to their home Wifi. It just consumes from a different source, but you deplete the bought data all the same.
You used it
Duh… You have some device connected and you are using that device to browse, stream etc. The bundle depleted accordingly. Just one device? Most people have two online at home; a phone and a laptop or tablet. Or even a laptop and a tablet. Also other people in the household are online (isn’t the SSID and WiFi key written for all to see on the bottom of the modem?). Again, one or two devices per user.
Be careful what you download, watch or listen to. Emails are small in data, but attachments can be large. A simple website can be significant in megabytes because of its images. Facebook comes to mind but so do Imgur or Snapchat, as large image driven sites. A big data-gobbler is Youtube, especially when watching at HD quality. Netflix is absolutely great but streams whole movies over the Internet link. A good quality movie is easily over 1 GB. Streaming music e.g. through iTunes or listening to HotFM over the Internet is cool, but it adds up too.
Some folks use gadgets like a ‘smart’ TV, AppleTV or a Roku, which connect all the time. Many console games (Playstation, Xbox, Nintedo) require a constant-on Internet connection to play and believe me, they use it. Then there are apps for the phone or tablet that give regular updates of the news in the UK or the weather in Amsterdam. They can only do that by connecting very often. All Google services including Inbox/Gmail, Hangouts, Earth and Maps get their data from a Google server, often. Doing Skype or WhatsApp for voice will use quite a bit of data and video even more. Downloading music or movies with a BitTorrent program will do too. And so on, you get the drift. Bottom line here: be careful what you ask for.
But we are not done yet. A lot of traffic is in the background, hidden. When installing an app on your phone it may ask for permission to access the Internet and that is for a reason. Plenty of phone apps go online and send usage data back to the writers of the app. An innocuous Solitaire game app might get its next deal from a server somewhere. Many ‘free’ apps come with adverts. Those adverts come from the Internet. That way a simple app with no need to access the Internet can still use your bundle. When you have BitTorrent software installed on your desktop or laptop it might, even when seemingly closed, still be going on in the background and could also use quite a bit of upload capacity.
Hold on, not finished even now! Your data bundle counts all data, downloaded as well as uploaded. So those great pics of your little one’s first steps that you want to send to his aunty in Kitwe will also count towards your bundle usage, and count more heavily as phones get better cameras with more mega pixels.
Any device that is online has apps that need regular updates. Not just anti-virus definitions on Windows but also updates for the apps themselves and even updates for the operating system, be it Windows, iOS, Android or whatever distro of Linux you are using. Same for that cool PS4. Depending on the settings on the device, those updates might come in without asking and with very little notification afterwards. And they are usually not small at all. Ever woken up to your phone saying “6 applications updated”? There you go. And then multiply that by the number of devices you have online and again by the number of people in the house.
Someone else used it
Now it is getting more tricky. The WiFi transmitted by a fixed modem or even a Myfi can be visible outside the house. Could it be that a neighbour is getting into your WiFi and using it? Security levels for modems and wireless access points have been improved over the last years. Still, with the right knowledge and the right software and a bit of time it is possible for someone in range to ‘crack’ a WiFi key and start using your service.
But is it likely? Well, you know your neighbours better than I do. It will need someone pretty tech-savvy to be able to do this, so is not too likely. If you have access to your modems setup pages you can get a hint by checking the DHCP lease table. If you see a device there that isn’t yours you need to get suspicious. If you are very sure it isn’t yours and see it more than once, you might want to change your WiFi key (or hire some goons).
Your provider made a mistake
Every provider has a server room or two, full of servers with complicated software that get you your service and at the same time keeps track of your usage and top-ups. Billing software we call the latter and it is arguably the most important software they have. After all, they are not a charity.
Can that software make mistakes? Sure, any software can have errors or encounter situations (read: input data) it was not written for. These scenarios are not likely at all, but cannot be excluded off-hand.
Larger companies usually have more expensive and proven software, less likely to have erroneous billing. Smaller companies might use home-grown software, tailor-made for their situation. Of course, with all due respect, also the staff can make mistakes.
If a mistake happens it would seem likely to happen to many users at once, not just you alone. In all cases the company will have a habit of checking the results continuously to spot and avoid errors. Errors are an embarrassment and a hassle to roll back and companies don’t want either. So: not likely, certainly if it is only you that has a problem.
Your provider stole it
Expanding on that billing software, would an ISP knowingly record more usage for you than they should? Remember these are all registered (some even listed) companies, with many staff and all the check and balances and audits that you can have. Plus ZICTA looking over their shoulder. They have a reputation to loose, and loss of reputation means loss of clients means loss of revenue. So, no, in my opinion and experience that does not happen. Verdict: mistakes can happen but I don’t believe any ISP would be willfully cheating on their clients. Let’s put this to rest.
It is a virus!
Computer viruses are rampant, we all know that. The Windows operating system, the one most vulnerable to infection, is used by many people (over 90 % of the desktop and laptop computers in the world) and many of those are older versions. In Africa Windows XP is still in use on about 13% of the desktops/laptops (1) mostly because people don’t want to spend the money on a new version or are not able to. Why is that important for your Internet usage? While viruses are a topic on their own there is a small group of them that hijack your computer to use it to hack into servers elsewhere in the world. That will use data too. A computer that is behind on updates is much more vulnerable to virus infections. Windows XP isn’t supported anymore, doesn’t get security updates at all and is therefore even more vulnerable. Updates are essential for any computer that goes on the Internet regularly but unfortunately those updates themselves will cost you data.
What to do?
So how do you avoid finishing your bundle or Internet allocation so quickly? From the above you should already get some ideas.
- Be aware of what your phone, tablet or computer is doing and what you are downloading. Especially be mindful of apps or software running in the background. Android has a page (Settings > Data Usage) that can show you the data use of each app. Check that.
- Be aware of what your housemates are doing online.
- Keep an eye on your WiFi. Be sure to use a good level of security (WPA2 with extended encryption instead of WEP). Change the key if you get suspicious.
- In the case of offices things are more difficult to control. There are however gadgets that can avoid having colleagues doing stuff on the Internet they should not do, Unified Threat Managers (UTM) they are called. Big name, small box. They are easily installed and configured and might save your business quite a bit of Internet money.
- If you suspect your provider is making a billing mistake, document the case as much as you can and go talk with them. They will be likely be quite willing to help to sort it out.
- Keep the anti-virus on your desktop or laptop up-to-date. It is worth it, especially if it is a Windows machine.
- Same for the security updates. You can switch automatic updating off to control when the downloads happen. Some providers have cheap night-time and weekend rates.
- For other updates, the ones for software or apps, switch the automatic updating off so you can decide whether you want them at all and when and where it does the download.
I am an independent Internet and computer consultant and not affiliated with any provider in any way. The article expresses my opinions and nothing else. I might even be wrong.
Author: Erik Schoute is a consultant with Amsterzam Limited
Image Source: Ebuyer