pay as you play

Which “free” mobile apps are costing you the most money?

August 8, 2014
Obsession
Mobile Web
August 8, 2014

As the mobile internet has boomed, operators have tried to move their customers from unlimited-access data plans to consumption-based plans, where people pay based on how much mobile data they’re using. This push has been largely successful. For example, AT&T—the largest US operator—said last month that more than 80% of its smartphone customers, excluding prepaid, have usage-based data plans. That’s up from 45% three years ago.

The upshot: Using the mobile web and apps—even free ones—costs money. Of course, there are huge productivity and entertainment benefits to many apps. But now that data consumption represents a tangible cost, it’s interesting to see which apps are the most expensive, by bandwidth usage.

Fortunately, both major smartphone operating systems, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, allow users to see how much mobile data they’re consuming and which apps are using how much. Generally, viewing the Cellular section in the Settings app reveals total data consumption and per-app usage.

In my case, I’ve used 6.8 GB since I last reset my iPhone’s data counter a few months ago. Twitter turns out to be my biggest “expense”—my Twitter app has consumed 2.2 GB of data during that time, or almost one-third of the total. This seemed surprising at first: isn’t Twitter just 140-character text snippets? But with all the photos and videos in the Twitter stream today, plus loading websites in the built-in browser, addict-level usage adds up.

Instagram comes in second place, accounting for 20% of my usage—reasonable, considering all the hi-resolution photos it’s loading. Only three other apps—Safari, Podcasts, and Mail—top 5%.

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It’s trickier to figure out the actual dollar costs for this consumption. Most people probably don’t use the entire allotment they pay for each month. And many people are on “shared” family plans, where bandwidth caps are distributed among multiple devices and people. But, roughly, I’ll assume that I’m spending about $10 per month to use Twitter on my phone. Knowing how much enjoyment I get, this seems fair.

We’re curious where your mobile bandwidth is going—and we’ve set up a quick, informal survey to learn more. If you don’t mind, please look up your total data consumption and top app, and share it with us through this form. If the results are interesting enough, we’ll follow up.

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