Saturday, October 13, 2012

AT&T Cellular Data "Leak"

Some months ago, before the iPhone 5 an before iOS 6, the five devices on my family plan started to see data a usage spike. My wife’s phone was the first to experience it and we assumed that it was her son was viewing YouTube videos extensively. At the time we were all on the 2 Gb data plan, a plan that had recently been replaced with a more expensive 3 Gb plan. To avoid a $10 overage charge, we gave up the less expensive (and grandfathered, no longer available) 2 Gb plan and limited her son's access to her phone. At the time she had a 16 Gb iPhone 4 running iOS 5.x. Over the next two or three months, the same thing happened to both of my sons' phones (both Androids), my iPhone 4S and, quite shockingly, my iPad 2. AT&T could not explain the data spikes or the "coincidence" in light of the fact that our usage behaviors and locations had not significantly changed. The result after about three or four months was that each of the five devices were moved up to the 3 Gb plan - at a total cost of $25 per month. And, even at 3 Gb, on a couple of occasions one or another device (iPhone 4S - 32Gb, iPhone 4 - 16Gb, iPad 2 -32 Gb, and two Android based phones) came close to its 3Gb limit when in the past years of smart phone use with AT&T (I have had the same account for 12 years - longer than AT&T has been AT&T), I have never come close. This includes every version of the iPhone and iOS, Blackberry, Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and other smart-phones. After many phone calls and untold hours on the phone with their tech support, no one at AT&T has ever offered an explanation other than the standard "some apps are open and use data in the background," etc.

So I sucked it all up, paying approximately $300 per month for five devices. Just before the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 were released, maybe six or eight weeks before, I noticed that my data usage as reported through my AT&T online account management has shown some interesting regular patterns. It was apparent on every device, not just the iPhones and iPad 2 (the others are a Samsung Galaxy and a Nokia Lumina). The pattern was some data usage at hourly intervals even when the phones were known to be in WiFi. The recent buzz has to do with a data "leakage" problem on Verizon with the release of iOS 6, and apparently Apple has updated Verizon iOS 6, but when it comes to AT&T and others, there is no information forthcoming. Whether or not my bill data reflects the Verizon/iOS 6/Apple problem or not, I cannot say, but I can say this: Data is being recorded as used at hourly intervals when I know the phone (or iPad) is in strong, reliable WiFi. It happens with all five devices, but the most stunning set of data comes from my iPad.

At :52 after the hour, every hour, some data use is recorded on my iPad. It is almost always in WiFi, but this data usage happens even when I am sleeping, and even when my iPad is sleeping (cover closed). And this pattern is steady and constant going back three weeks at least - to the beginning of my billing cycle. AT&T's first explanation was that when the phone slips out of WiFi, it automatically switches over to cellular data until the WiFi connection is reestablished. If there was an app open that uses data at all, it would record some minimal data usage - and most (but not all) of these hourly hits are small. But they add up quickly such that with a week left in my billing cycle, AT&T sent me a warning that my shared data usage of 10 Gb is 65% used. So, lets just say that there are occasions that this could happen - a momentary loss of WIFI would created a small cellular data hit if an app is open - granted, that could happen. But every hour for weeks in a row? And a pattern that is apparent on every one of the various devices on my account? I don't think so.

Since the customer service agent could not explain these stark facts, he sent me over to tech support. That agent could not come up with an adequate explanation either, so a supervisor was brought in. She tried the same old "plausible" explanations, but the numbers I have defy any pat answer that they can give. She referred it to some "second tier" investigation - and offered me a $120 credit on my next bill. I never asked for a credit and, in fact, even with this strange data accounting, I will not exceed my limit anyway. Of course, I took the credit.

There is a lot of buzz about this problem with iPhones and iOS 6 - but I am telling anyone who will listen that it goes beyond that. There is something funny going on at AT&T and it has been happening since before any of this iPhone 5 and iOS 6 hoopla began - it started at about the same time the 2 Gb data plan was retired. I am not being financially impacted by this - yet, but when something stinks like this, I am compelled to find out where the stench is coming from.