Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nexus 4 + Straight Talk: Part 4 - Data Usage

What if you never had to worry about going over your celluar data plan again?  What if you could use your phone for web browsing, email, navigation, and occassional tethering without fear of going over some arbitrary limit?  Does that sound too good to be true?  Could Straight Talk possibly offer all of that and still cost half what you're paying with a major carrier?  Alas, that is just a bit too good to be true... but only a bit.  Here are the highlights - if you want more information, just ask.

There is just a ton of information out there about Straight Talk data usage, the supposed risks of using  Straight Talk, and the rumors of discconects and other frustrations.  Some of it's true, but take it with a grain of salt.  While I only have a couple of data points at this point based on my own usage, I've throughoughly investigated this matter and here's what I've learned...

First of all, Straight Talk's Terms of Service (TOS) basically state that you have unlimited web browsing capabilities.  Not unlimited streaming, or unlimited file transfers... just unlimited web browsing.  How do they tell the difference between web browsing or streaming?  They don't.  And from everything I can tell, the tools that they have to measure this are fairly rudimentary - they can only determine excessive bandwidth allocation consumption, or respond to the underlying carrier flagging network abuse and reporting it to Straight Talk.  Straight Talk's job is to prevent the underlying carrier's network from being effected by the MVNO's users, and Straight Talk's duty is to protect their relationship with that underlying carrier.  

Ok, so what's my limit?

There is no arbitrary limit.  I think that's where a lot of the confusion on data usage stems from... it depends on a number of variables, the majority of which are unknown to you as an end-user at any given point in time.  For example, do you know what bandwidth has been allocated by the carrier to the area that you're currently in?  Can you tell how much is currently being utilized by other users?  Can you determine what impact you might be having on their network?  The reality is you can't make most of these determinations with any degree of accuracy.  But you can influence it by being responsible with your data usage.  This is why there is conflicting information... with some users report being able to get 5GB+ per month and of never being throttled, warned, or disconnected... why other's report warnings starting at 2GB.

So what's my limit?

Again, there's not an arbitrary limit.  But here's the deal... unlimited actually used to mean unlimited... until smartphones went from 5% marketshare, to 70% marketshare and data usage exploded.  This was about the same time AT&T started throttling the top 5% of their users in every market.  Today, the unofficial Straight Talk limit is between 2.0GB and 3.0GB per month (down from 5GB a while back).  OR...when you're affecting the underlying carrier's ability to provide quality service to the rest of their customers, and Straight Talk get's a warning from them.  You can count on the fact that AT&T isn't going to risk loosing more post-paid customers (like me, when I was paying $167 per month) to Straight Talk, and then having the Straight Talk users abuse their network.  

Yeah, great... but what's my limit?

I think I answered that a couple of times, but to be on the safe side... your limit is 2.0GB per month, and dont use more than 100MB per day.  Never watch Netflix, or stream excessive video.  A little Pandora?  Check.  Tethering to your computer so you can VPN into the office and RDP into your workstation for a bit?  Check.  If you use your phone as a tool, and avoid streaming media over your data plan - you should be fine.

What happens if I get warned?

If you hit a limit, they'll throttle you way down.  If you made a big enough impact, the first time you're flagged, Straight Talk will call or text a warning to you.  Heed the warning, because the second time you will be deactivated.  Unlike some of the other MVNOs, Straight Talk always warns you the first time.  After that, you will be deactivated.  

How can I avoid being warned?

Be responsible with your data plan usage.  First set a warning level that's reasonable (e.g. 1.5GB), so that you don't accidently go over.  Beyond that...
  • Use WiFi when it's available.  
  • Don't stream video... especially don't stream Netflix, or excessive YouTube.
  • Don't use your phone in place of your computer... file transfers, downloading content, etc... really belongs either on WiFi, or your laptop. 
  • Try not to tether (or if you do, do it responsibly)
How much data are you using?

My last two data points were 1.5GB and 1.9GB.  I haven't been throttled, warned, or deactivated.  Two simple tweaks have also substantially reduced my data usage.

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