Cellco data billing accuracy questioned

17 Sep 2012

One of the side-effects of swapping unlimited mobile data plans for tiered plans with data caps is that customers are becoming hyperaware of how much data they actually consume. And with numerous blogs posting reports on the accuracy (or lack thereof) of data meters, more customers are asking if they’re being billed accurately for how much data they use.

According to a study from UCLA, the answer (in the US, at least) is: not really.

The research team, led by computer science PhD Peng Chunyi, used a data-logging app on Android phones to check the data use that two US cellcos were recording. Result: they tend to overcount (and thus potentially overcharge) for apps like streaming audio or video, and in situations where coverage is weak or unreliable, reportsTechnology Review:

The problem stems from the way networks count data use. They count data as it leaves the heart of a company's network and sets out on the journey to the mobile tower nearest a subscriber. That means data is counted whether a phone receives it or not. If a person on a bus is streaming video but enters a tunnel and loses her connection, for example, video that she never sees will already have been counted toward her plan.

The problem affects video and audio streaming apps in particular because they use protocols that don't require the receiving device to acknowledge the receipt of every chunk of data, as Web browsers or many other apps do. That means a video app will keep sending data for some time, oblivious to the fact that a device can't receive it.

(The study doesn’t identify the cellcos by name, only that together they count for over 50% of the US mobile subscriber base.)

Whatever one makes of the results of the study, the real point here isn’t necessarily that cellcos are wrong to calculate charges that way, but that they have to make their methodology clear to customers.

As Peng points out to TR, cellcos might feel their accounting is fair because they incur the cost of transmitting data whether the user receives it or not. On the other hand, not many users are going to appreciate being charged for something they never used – especially if it results in pushing them over their usage cap.

Meanwhile, I’d like to know how cellcos in Asia calculate their data charges, and how they resolve disputes over usage. Any insights? Post them in the comment box, please. Or email them to me if you don’t want to discuss it publicly.

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