August 31, 2013

How my data usage plans went up in smoke

TL;DR: I recently upgraded to Samsung Galaxy S4 on AT&T with a 200 MB data limit. Today, my phone used 173 MB of data in 10 minutes while reading a Business Insider article using the Hacker News Android app.

The mopey upgrader
In my many years of owning gadgets, I have always been fond of keeping my devices as long as they work and basically run them to the ground until they stopped working. That personal trait has kept me happy and has been one of my financial pillars for saving money. The only times where I thought of upgrading or going for that new phone is that awkward feeling when you see friends or colleagues go show them off every other year - their new, latest and greatest device that is a big hit. That shiny 14MP camera that dazzles in all types of light. That great game that could run on their new computer as well as a console that just won't work at all on mine.

This time it happened to be my phone. My good ol' Samsung Galaxy SII Skyrocket was the first smartphone I owned. I had bought it exactly at the time AT&T ended unlimited data i.e. I did not have a plan to get grandfathered into. Regardless, I signed up for a $15 / month data usage plan on 4G LTE. The Skyrocket was humming along for the first year. After the first year, it still worked great, but the battery life was quite bad. I was on the TouchWiz version and did tinker around with rooting the phone. However, I decided to go back to TouchWiz because my usage was confined to the stock apps.

After the ICS OTA update, I ended up going for one of those Anker battery replacements since the phone was barely holding charge for 9 hours- a normal work day's usage of 30 minutes or 1 hour talk time, 3-4 hours of browsing Reddit and HN, 20 odd messages exchanged on Whatsapp, Google Location / GPS turned off and the rest being idle with 4G LTE turned on. As luck would have it, the battery change did not solve the problem of the battery running out of charge by the time I got home from work. The phone was holding about 15hrs of charge with pretty much the same usage as before.

The joy of upgrading your phone!
I wouldn't say I was waiting for this day with a lot of excitement. Everytime I get into a new contract, I get apprehensive and think twice. However, with the release of Jelly Bean and the hype around Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, I started doing my research on upgrading and decided "Only two years, it'll go away in no time - just like when I got my SII".

It has been only a couple of months since I got my new Samsung Galaxy S4. Like any kid with a new toy, I have been playing around with the phone ever since I bought it. The camera was amazing, the OTA updates were a lot more configurable and settings in general were much more detailed than in the SII. The battery, oh wow, it would just work. I have gone more than 24hrs without recharging my phone with my usage pretty much the same. That is quite awesome compared to the recharge every 12hrs towards the end of my tryst with the SII.

Usage planning: a feature made for me
I have always been a stickler for planning. Almost all of my life, I have made plans and try to keep up. Course correction when unexpected things happen or tweaking plans as I go help in understanding how to keep myself out of a situation where I'm in deep trouble. Without being organized, I'm pretty much a wreck. I use Mint for my monthly budgets and credit card due reminders and keep track of my debt; Google Calendar - to remind me to submit my weekly timecard, to pay rent on time and so on. Having seen what being disorganized can lead to both financially and personally, these services and apps help ensuring I stay out of trouble.

Which is precisely why I loved the Data Usage setting in the Galaxy S4. Here, I could set my data limit and keep track of my data usage. In my 25 odd months of the SII, I only exceeded my 200MB / month plan a couple of times. Both of them involved heavily using the Navigation app on road trips. With the change of phones, I didn't expect that to change a lot. I would keep paying the same $15 a month, I had thought. WRONG! 

My apps

I have a select set that just about fills up three screens:

Most of my time is spent on Reddit is fun, Hacker News Android, Twitter, Cricinfo, YouTube, Mint and Whatsapp. Once in awhile I tend to use Fuelio, doubleTwist, Vine and Google Drive. All my other apps are on a need to use basis.

First month: Hmmm, is it just AT&T or is the Galaxy S4 using up data a LOT!
In my first month of owning the Galaxy S4, I was shocked that I hit my data limit with 10 days left to go on my billing cycle (cycle ended August 26th). Imagine, you change phones and the very first month you run up an overage on data while you were able to plan and maintain staying within the limit for the two years preceding that. I was heartbroken. How am I to stop reading the news during my walk or when out for lunch! For 10 whole days! The alternative was to (gulp!) pay the extra $15 for another 200 MB just for days. Nope! I think this will be a good test to see if I can be without using data and be only on WiFi.

However, I was curious. Which apps ate up my data? Did I really use all that in just 20 days? I went into the data usage and checked for the culprit.

Oh! Maps. Yes, I remember upgrading Maps when Navigation and Maps sort of got merged I think. I used it heavily when I drove down on Highway 1, en route to Big Sur stopping by at Monterey, Carmel and a couple of places along Highway 1. It made sense.

I had no idea what Google Services truly was. Maybe I forgot to set the Google Play store updates to not use Mobile Data. It could have been a background update when my phone was sitting in my pocket. But Android OS and Remove apps? Can removing apps take up data? Hmmmm.

Reddit is fun and Facebook usage seem legit. The other entries that I didn't capture in the screenshot seemed to make sense given that I could remember using them on the road.

Second month: 1. Setup Data Limit 2. Usage curfew 3. Stick to plan 4. Stay in budget!
It has just been 5 days since my last billing cycle ended. At the end of my last cycle, I set my mobile data limit to 200 MB (set to 190 MB now) and disabled mobile data the whole of last week. I do not remember browsing anything other than when I was on WiFi. I would have probably opened up Hacker News Android a couple of times.

Earlier this morning, I woke up at 6AM. That is a rare early start for me on a Saturday morning. I'm the kind of guy who ends up sleeping in on Saturdays even if I went to bed early Friday. Since I was up early, the next step was to get something accomplished. I know, my car is full of bird poop! Let me head to Dirt Busters and get in line along with the Soccer moms and seniors who always seem to be the ones patiently waiting at that place. 

45 minutes for the wash you say! I was tempted to ask for the WiFi password and get caught up on the latest on Reddit and HN. It is a little socially awkward for me to go back and ask the attendant for the WiFi password (I went out to the waiting area after paying for the wash). But hey, I've hardly used my data this month. One small fix of turning on the Mobile Data is not going to hurt my plan, right! WRONG!

15 minutes into my wait at my car wash, my eyes rolled at the sight of my phone. All that careful planning, adding a curfew on my data usage per day and keeping my hands clean off an overage on this bill - all of them are now up in smoke.

Damn you Business Insider! Or Hacker News Android! Or Galaxy S4! And AT&T!
After a few minutes of flipping through the Reddit front page, I opened up Hacker News Android. The top articles were pretty interesting. The article (don't click this link on a phone with data usage!) that caught my eye was about how the largest homeless camp is in Silicon Valley from this post.

I started to read it. Halfway through, my phone started freaking out about data limit reached. My warning had set in. Mobile Data got disabled until the time I enabled it again. My jaw dropped. What the... how can reading one article end up eating all that data? Surely, this is a mistake? 

I sat there at the car wash dissecting the possible things that could have happened. I know the data usage charts are to be taken with a grain of salt, but burning through ~190MB in 15 minutes? This led to digging deeper for answers.

Here's the usage over the last five days since my billing cycle for September kicked in:

That seems about right. I have only accessed a few apps during lunch time over the last week. Maybe Hacker News Android is downloading something in the background? Well, the breakdown is suspicious. What could possibly be taking up 50% of the data used in the background for this app?

That narrowed it down to something I used this morning to lead to my data limit breach. 

Let me check August 31st alone (Today):

Holy! But but.. maybe its not this app and the data is misleading. I did browse Reddit a lot for the first 5 minutes and read quite a lot of posts on /r/cringepics, /r/onetruegod and /r/ImGoingToHellForThis. All of posts are imgur links. I probably did use up 16 MB there. 

Or.. maybe it was the ONE article I read? The foreground statistic says it all:

Could it be that the article from Business Insider about the homeless in Silicon Valley contained so many photos that got downloaded, leading to my data being usurped? Seems plausible. But 173 MB? Hah, not a chance.  I did not refresh the page or get into the article again, so 173 MB for one page load seemed too much. 

I decided to fire up Chome developer tools to get to the bottom of this. Besides, I bet Business Insider might have a mobile site along with optimized images for mobile devices. NOPE!

15.7 MB transferred after DOM has finished loading for one page load. Whoa! I also noticed a continuous ping to a requesting something every 30 seconds or so. This is the URL for those interested.

15.7 MB for an article that was a photo feature seems possible. I think I can let this one slide. But the 173 MB overall used by Hacker News Android?

Conclusion: WTF?
At this point, I'm lost for ideas on what really happened. Maybe AT&T is ripping off people who own 4G LTE phones. Maybe Samsung Galaxy S4 has a something hidden somewhere in the phone that guzzles data. Maybe Hacker News Android is terribly inefficient when it manages data. Maybe whoever maintains the Business Insider website needs to make their CMS mobile-friendly. Or.. maybe the lochness monster has found its way into my phone and is using the above companies as proxy for more money. Multiples of tree fiddy. I don't know!

Here's what I do know: I won't be using my mobile data for the next 20 days. I can't afford to rack up my phone bill every month while my I try to pay off credit card debt, students loans AND save up for a possible down payment on a house. It will need to be WiFi only for some time. Also, I'm going to back to pre-loading Maps direction instructions when I need to go to some place I do not know the route to. Those were a life-saver when I was a student.

Alas, I remember simpler times when having a phone meant only tracking your minutes. Tracking data usage seems to be a whole other ball game.