Wireless Data on the Road

While many RV parks offer some form of wi-fi Internet connectivity, we have found over the past couple of years that the level of service is typically somewhere between very marginal to very unusable. For that reason, we have a data plan with AT&T that we use with our phones and with the MiFi device that distributes the Internet data wirelessly in the RV.

Over the course of more than two years on the road, we have found a few gotchas that you may not know about. These items may only be particular to our carrier (AT&T) or to our equipment (Apple devices). They may have equivalent anomalies with other carriers (Verizon, Sprint, etc.) or with other devices (Android and Windows). We can’t speak for those carriers or devices, but it would behoove you to see if these items may affect you in some fashion.

Where did my data go?

One month, our data plan was pretty much on target to last throughout the billing period. It was a little close, but we monitor it frequently and cut back on “wasteful” usage if it looks like it will be close.

Imagine our surprise when a couple days later, we were getting overage messages. Looking through the log of data usage, there was a period in time when we supposedly used over 8 GB of data in a couple hour period. Where did all that data disappear?

It turns out that if you have Apple devices (iPhone, iPod and iPad) and there is a new version of iOS available, your device will automatically download it in the background when the device is plugged in to charge and is connected to a wi-fi signal. Even if you have gone into settings on your device and turned off all automatic downloads, this still occurs.

Since our devices are connected to our MiFi device (wi-fi) and we typically plug them in at night to charge them back up, they all decided that each of them would go ahead and automatically download a nearly 2 GB update while we slept.

How do you prevent this? One way is to make sure there isn’t room on your device for the download to occur. This may not be practical. Another is to prevent the devices from reaching the Apple update site via your wi-fi router. I’m not sure if our MiFi device is capable of allowing certain sites to be disabled and instructions on how to do so are beyond the scope of this blog post. The last and simplest way is to turn off wi-fi on your device at night before plugging it in to charge.

I didn’t use that much data that day

When we checked to see where our several GB of data went, Malcolm was on the detailed data usage part of the AT&T website. It indicated that all that data was used on a Tuesday afternoon between 2:00 and 3:00. That was on a day that Malcolm was at the Nashville office working and Val was out shopping. 

Further, we’ve noticed that messages for data overages sometimes come the day after the new billing period has started. Also, we sometimes get a 75% of data used message followed closely by a 100% usage message (sometimes within minutes).

It turns out that AT&T posts your data usage sometimes two days after it occurs. Also, checking your data usage by dialing *DATA# on your phone (you do know that trick, right?) will usually show a different number than what logging onto the website will show. 

The takeaway to all this is not to let your data usage get really close to the limit within a few days of the end of the billing period. You may suddenly find yourself paying data overages.

Off Network Data Usage

As I write this blog post, we are staying in a remote area of Arizona near Canyon Lake. We were pleased to find that was had fairly adequate 4G data on our MiFi after setting up camp. A couple hours into the evening, Malcolm got an email from AT&T indicating that we had used 250 of a maximum of 400 MB of Off Network data for the billing period. If we continued past 400 MB, we wouldn’t get any data at all and, worse, if this behavior continued for more than one billing period, our entire account may potentially be cancelled.

The email went on to mention that you should be careful when using data when your device indicates it is “Off Network”. Malcolm looked at the MiFi unit and, sure enough, the top of the screen said “Off Network”. It definitely said “AT&T” when we first turned it on here. We just turned off the MiFi unit and Malcolm continued to use the Internet by tethering to his phone, which said “AT&T” at the top of the screen.

The next morning, Malcolm got a similar text message on his phone indicating the same issue with data usage. His phone now said “Off Network” at the top of the screen. Val’s phone still said “AT&T”. 

Malcolm researched this and found that AT&T allows you a maximum of 250 MB of “Off Network” data per billing period, but will possibly allow you to go over to 400 MB. “Off Network” means that another cell provider is providing the signal and data on your device and will bill AT&T for the usage. You will not know this is occurring, though, until you go over that 250 MB limit on your device and endanger your account. 

AT&T apparently thinks that it should appear seamless to the user and just show AT&T on the screen so that they don’t get confused. Only when you approach that magical limit will your screen actually indicate that you are on someone else’s network. If you look at your cell phone agreement, it would presume upon the user to check the availability of AT&T data in any location you might visit. We all know how accurate coverage maps are.

By the way, you can’t specifically prevent “off network” data roaming on iPhones, at least. There is a switch in settings to turn off International Roaming, but it doesn’t affect domestic roaming.

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