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Using wireless network bandwidth monitoring to stay within data caps

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Given 3G and 4G bandwidth caps and new cloud content synchronization services like iCloud, how can wireless broadband data users conduct network bandwidth monitoring and avoid exceeding limits?

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Monitoring bandwidth usage has long been a challenge for wireless broadband users. Checking a carrier’s website to eyeball usage-to-date is hardly a real-time solution, and new cloud apps are boosting usage to record highs. For some users, the first indication that something is amiss is an unexpectedly big bill. Figuring out which app or setting is the culprit can be tough.

Enterprises can deploy mobile expense management tools, using device-resident agents for monitoring bandwidth usage. Such tools can help enterprises enforce bandwidth caps by generating admin or user threshold notifications – perhaps even changing a smartphone or tablet setting when defined limits are approached.

Individuals can accomplish part or all of this through native capabilities or third-party apps. Older Android and iPhone and iPad users can download free or paid network bandwidth monitoring apps from Apple’s AppStore – these can require a little effort, but make it easy to see percentage use towards a monthly limit in real-time.

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Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) users can now just tap Settings / Data Usage to see this information graphed against any mobile data limit the user might want to set. This graph is followed by a per-application breakdown, making it easy to identify apps consuming the most mobile data. In fact, this can be a good way to spot cloud apps that are silently eating away at your bandwidth cap through automatic data synchronization.

Once you know that you’re approaching your limit – and preferably which app(s) are busting your budget – other device settings can be used to whittle away at overages. For example, on iOS 5 devices, administrators or users can turn off iCloud backup or document sync and photo streaming – or disable iCloud entirely. On Android devices, Settings / Accounts and Sync can disable auto-sync for apps that are rarely used or temporarily when roaming. Many individual apps also have settings to fine-tune network use by setting refresh intervals, disabling notifications, requiring manual sync when roaming (e.g., Exchange Active Sync v14), or warning when high-bandwidth apps are used over mobile broadband.

Bottom line: Unpleasant surprises can be avoided by monitoring bandwidth usage – especially after purchasing a new device, upgrading to a new OS version, or installing a cloud app. If you’re planning to roam for a while (e.g., during a trip abroad), disable auto-sync on apps you won’t need – but don’t forget to turn sync back on. Enterprises should seek more scalable options to improve usage visibility – even if they cannot control it.

This was first published in February 2012

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