USE of mobile data is skyrocketing. But where does all that data go? Is it realistic that hundreds of megabytes can disappear in a week or two?

Consumers are steadily using more and more data, and at faster speeds. But disappearing data has now become part of a broader investigation by the national consumer commission into network service providers, after frustration expressed by users who were unable to determine where it all went.

Last year, mobile network operators, especially MTN, were heavily criticised for what became known as “data depletion”. New research by Internet browsing platform Opera shows that apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Gmail drain mobile data, even when they only operate in the background.

By surveying the data use of millions of Opera Max users, Opera showed that 30% of data was used by apps that ran in the background. The results are expected to be similar for users of other browsing platforms like Chrome or Safari.

Facebook Messenger and Gmail are the most data-hungry apps, Opera revealed. Up to 73% of their total data usage took place in the background. For Google Drive and WhatsApp, that figure was more than 50%.

“Most apps are designed to deliver a great user experience, not to save data,” says Sergey Lossev, product manager at Opera Software.

“If you fetch background data through your data plan, it’s like throwing away $1 out of every $3 you spend on your mobile data plan.”

“Most people are not aware of this background data drain and may not have authorised it, nor do they know how to stop it from happening,” says Lossev.

Data costs, which are higher in SA than in developed markets, have forced some consumers to adopt a more frugal approach.

Opera Max has tried to come to the rescue with a service that alerts customers about their data use. It provides detailed information about the background data use of each app, and allows users to limit this use.

When local mobile operators faced a barrage of complaints from consumers last year, they said smartphones were configured for heavy data usage. In addition, they were configured to use new-generation networks such as long-term evolution (LTE) or 4G. This super-fast network is capable of high download speeds and heavy data consumption.

When consumers make the transition from a feature phone to a smartphone, they should expect that their data usage will spike, they said at the time.

In addition, apps like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram continuously update to introduce new functions and fix bugs. Often, the updates are set up to take place automatically, which means they will use the customers’ data bundle. These automatic updates are default settings on many phones.

B-Cubed Software MD Brendon Cilliers concedes that apps like Google Drive and WhatsApp do use a lot of data. But users expect them to deliver messages immediately, which makes it necessary for them to run in the background, he says.

Many apps have built-in settings to assist users to better manage data use. Gmail, for example, gives users the option to download attachments only if the device is connected to Wi-Fi.

B-Cubed Software monitors usage of more than 100,000 devices for its corporate customers. Cilliers says background app usage has improved. Negative feedback from users has forced app owners to provide consumers with more options.

“As more users have adopted smart platforms (and experienced data usage bill shock) they have found almost every way to contain usage leakage.”

Contract customers are generally a lot less concerned about conserving data, but they are also more likely to use Wi-Fi whenever they can.

Pre-paid customers, especially those in the lower-income group, are very mindful of their usage, and go as far as turning their data service off until they require a data connection. This helps them to save on background usage.

But this frugal behaviour has hurt local companies. Cilliers says low-income users generally won’t download more than five apps. “This is a trend that has hurt a lot of local companies that have invested in apps to better communicate with their target market.” Low-income users show a preference for popular games and social media platforms, he says.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail

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