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Is your carrier overbilling you for mobile data?

The smartphone revolution has produced a new practice among mobile users: we’ve started counting megabytes. With a few unlimited plan exceptions, most mobile data services are now capped, requiring us to keep a close eye on our usage. But are our carriers counting bytes the same way we are?

According to an MIT Technology Review report, they’re not, and as you might expect the discrepancy in byte counts come out in the operators’ favor. The carriers aren’t exactly sticking their thumb on the scale, but they’re billing you for all data they ship you, rather than the data you actually receive, UCLA computer scientist Chunyi Peng told the Review.

Peng and her research group built a custom app for Android(s GOOG) that counts bytes actually received on the device and then tested it over two unnamed U.S. operators’ networks. They were billed for 450 MB of data that they didn’t actually consume. Over a typical phone, carriers tend to over-count data by between 5 percent and 7 percent – not a huge number, but a significant one if it pushes you over your cap, triggering either an automatic overage fee or throttling policies that limit your speeds, Peng concluded.

The reason for the discrepancy has to do with where carriers count data. Peng explained to the Review that carriers start tracking usage as it leaves the network core, not when it actually hits the phone. The problem is the fickleness of mobile connections means customers often move in and out of coverage or experience dips and spikes in bandwidth. Not all data requested actually makes it to the phone, but the carriers still charge you for the delivery attempt. The issue is particularly bad with audio and video streams, which keep on coming even if the radio link to the phone disappears.

Considering that video is expected to be the biggest growth driver in mobile data, this problem is only to get worse. Consumers have every right be upset. It’s true carriers are making the effort to deliver that data, and it’s arriving all the way up the base station. But that’s hardly a justification for over-counting. If the network is too congested or cellular coverage is lost that’s ultimately the responsibility falls on the carrier, not the consumer.

Interestingly, Peng and her team also found away to bypass the data toll booth, by disguising application traffic as DNS requests that don’t count against plans’ data buckets – at least on the two operators tested. Peng told the Review that she was able to create an app that exploited that policy racking up 200 MB of data usage that went uncounted on her bill.

Abacus Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Tomas Urbelionis Photo

6 Responses to “Is your carrier overbilling you for mobile data?”

  1. Without the slightest reservation the average consumer is familiar with the fact they’re being over billed by their cellphone carrier. The most ridiculous aspect of all of this is that most people don’t have to be technically conscious to understand how data is transferred to their smart phone to know they didn’t utilize the amount of data they are being charged for. Unambiguously, with the technological revolution of these new and powerful smart phones, it leaves room for possible abuses to occur. For the laymen consumer unlimited means just what you say, ‘UNLIMITED.’ When you find yourself exceeding 2mb of data usage you are being billed exhorbantly for services that you didn’t have the opportunity to utilize in the first place. There needs to be more regulations in this area by a special overseeing organization if the one in place isn’t adequately protecting consumers from fraud by the big corporate phone carriers…

  2. RaptorOO7

    I have absolutely no doubt the carriers are over charging on data . They base it on tower transmission and not actual delivery. While I suspect their may not be a simple method to count actual data received on a device, it could somehow reconcile itself.

    Given data caps, and overage fee’s the FTC and FCC need to insure we are not only getting what is promised in terms of advertised speeds (something they are going to be doing to the wireless carriers) they also need to insure consumers are not getting taken.

  3. This is a shocker…..NOT!!!

    I’ve got 2 iPhones on ATT and use the free app “my data mgr” to monitor data consumption. When I compare the app data count to the ATT data count (text *3282#) it is always 3X. ATT shows I am consuming 3X as much data. I’ve verified this by sending myself a 1Mb file and seeing ATT count it as 3Mb.