Bill shock. It’s one of the harsh realities of the modern world. You sign up to an incredible $40 a month mobile plan with a sweet smartphone handset and 3G or even 4G speeds, and you’re all set. Off you go, gadding about the city watching YouTube clips and live sports, making video calls and running a paperless office while tracking your daily run via GPS.

Then you get the first bill. And it’s $1200. And you can’t imagine what has gone so catastrophically wrong, because if there’s one thing you hardly have time to do with your new smartphone, it’s make any calls.

Left to its own devices, a state-of-the-art smartphone is constantly connected. It pings the nearest tower for a whole host of online updates, from its apps to your email, to maps for GPS, and more. And with 4G networks rolling out around major cities, it’s easier than ever to use your phone the same way you use your home broadband connection.

Problem is, the network providers are still being very stingy with their data caps. At home, you’ll have a 200GB limit, or no limit at all. On the mobile, that can be as little as 200MB – though 1.5GB (ie 1500MB) seems to be a common quota now.

Combine social media, app updates, GPS maps (even though your phone knows its own position via satellite, the maps are downloaded) and video and you can chew through 200MB a day very easily. Go over your quota, and your network provider will charge you as much as $2 a megabyte. And that means a 100MB high definition YouTube video will cost you $200 to watch. Hope it was a really, really funny cat.

Fortunately, your smartphone is able to get its net connection via WiFi as well as mobile, and if you combine this ability with some judicious usage behaviour, you should find it easy to stay below that quota.

Let’s look at 10 ways to take control.

 10. Buy a data pack

These tips and methods are ranked, and while this one is extremely effective, it involves spending money, so it gets the #10 spot.

Most smartphone plans offer a paltry couple of gigabytes of data as part of their so-called ‘included value’. For the average net-addict though, 1.5GB isn’t enough to get through a month.

We had a look at our usage while researching this article: on our home broadband, with very little file downloading or gaming, we still chewed through nearly 20GB of data mostly on streaming video.

So buying a ‘data pack’ that attaches on to your existing plan is a way to get the less-restrictive data usage you want. Unfortunately, the packs are expensive – $10 per GB, typically. And if you do go through all that data, you’ll still be charged 10 cents a megabyte for any excess usage.

When you don't want to sign-up to a post-paid plan, mobile data packs are a good (albeit pricey) alternative.

 

9. Disable mobile data

This is a fairly draconian measure, but it does have a 100% success rate. Depending on which smartphone you own, you can dig through handset settings and actually switch off access to mobile data networks.

Your mobile will still work as a phone, and you’ll still be able to get internet on it via any WiFi network, but the phone will simply ignore the data capabilities of the mobile towers.

This is actually a very important setting if you’re using an ultra-budget calls-only SIM in your phone. These SIMs don’t include a data allowance, but they’re still capable of giving a smartphone access to the net. And on some networks, you’ll be charged a stratospheric $2 a megabyte. That will teach you for not signing up to a 24 month contract!

Dumbing down your smartphone by turning off data capabilities is the sure-fire way to avoid excess data fees.

8. Use a different browser

This is a little bit technical. The default web browser included with the major smartphones is, in most respects, the same as the browser on your computer. Your phone will request a web page from a server. If there’s a mobile version of that site, you’ll get that, but otherwise you’ll get all the data you’d receive on a full-size PC.

This is wasteful, because your phone actually compresses the page down to fit on the display (more modern phones with computer-like screen resolutions do this to a lesser extent). What would be better is a browser that does all the compression before pulling the data down over the mobile network.

There are third-party browsers – such a Opera – available for both iOS and Android that compress sites. Unfortunately, basic text-and-image websites don’t account for that much of your data usage, so the savings here are modest at best. But hey, they’re also free!

Some browsers compress websites before they download, to deliver modest data savings.

7. Chunk-check your email

Depending on your email system – be it Gmail, Hotmail, or an Exchange Server through work – your phone might be constantly querying the server to see if any new mail has arrived. Similarly, the server will ‘push’ new mail to your phone the instant it arrives.

Emails generally don’t use much data, and most phones have a default setting that doesn’t download large attachments over 3G or 4G networks, but a constant stream of mail can nibble away at that data allowance.

The phone’s various email settings will allow you to set longer intervals between email checks. But an even better setting is to only accept manual email updates. So when it occurs to you to check your mail, you tap a Send/Receive” button.

Not only does this cut down on background data-drain, it also stops you compulsively checking your phone every 45 seconds for mail notifications… doesn’t it?

6. Know your free site rights!

The latest marketing trick to convince you to switch mobile networks is the offer of various sites and online services that don’t count toward your data allowance. The most obvious of these are social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

It seems straightforward: any browsing or updating you do to Facebook or Twitter doesn’t count as a download or upload. End of story.

Well, not quite. There’s a trap. In the case of Facebook, your basic Newsfeed and the browsing of profile pages is free, but third-party apps such as games or other novelties – where additional data has to come from another server not controlled by Facebook – count as normal websites.

So stalking your ex-partners via mobile Facebook: free. Playing Farmville: not free.

5. Turn off location services

It’s great that your phone has GPS. So many interesting ways to use it! Quick, parking cops are about – alert everyone in a 5km radius! The downside to all this, apart from the GPS receiver chewing on your battery, is that most smartphone GPS functionality is heavily dependent on a net connection.

What can be more surprising is how many apps use location settings, and how many of them keep an idle eye on your location all the time. Forget privacy and battery life issues: many of these apps will also be pinging servers online for bits and pieces of data.

It’s mere kilobytes at a time, but when this goes on all day every day, you’d be surprised how the data adds up over the course of a month.

The solution? Turn off the GPS. If you’re not navigating or checking in, there’s no need for it. And we don’t know about you, but we’re still not 100% comfortable walking around all day with an active locator beacon in our pants.

Apps that use location services can be pinging servers all day, every day, and chewing into your allowance.

 

4. Turn off automatic updates and delete old apps

Apps are great fun, but they do take liberties with your phone and your data connection. Specifically, many apps want to update themselves all the time. To apply an update, the app must first check with a server to see if an update is available, then download it, then install it.

Some phone operating systems require the user to accept all updates manually, but others will update in the background. Before you know it, you’ll have downloaded 50–100MB of data.

You can turn off automatic updates in phone settings, but these apps will still keep checking the server for updates and then ask you to install them manually.

Data usage by apps is a murky area. It’s usually tricky to tell when they’re connected to the net or what exactly it is they’re doing. So it’s important to delete old apps once you’ve finished being amused by them. This frees up space on your phone, cuts down on battery drain, and most importantly, stops more little nibbles being taken out of your data allowance.

3. Don’t watch video. Ever

Again, this is a pretty harsh piece of advice but it’s extremely effective in controlling data usage. These days, the majority of major websites – news, sports, social networking – are optimised for mobile. You can browse text and images all afternoon and use maybe 20MB.

Add video into the equation though, and that thrift goes out the window. Even the major networks admit it: look at their ‘What do you get for your allowance’ breakdowns. A 1GB allowance (according to both Telstra and Optus) will give you 1000 emails, 1000 web pages, but only 20 two-minute video clips. Or 40 minutes of video, is what they’re trying not to actually say.

Video is very data intensive, and with 4G networks and phone displays capable of 720p HD, you can rip through 1GB of data in less than the full running length of the crappy Hollywood blockbuster you rented via the latest app.

 

Watching 40 minutes of video will burn through around 1GB of your allowance.

 

2. Join all the WiFi networks!

Now we get to the most practical – if slightly risky – piece of advice. Modern smartphones have two data receivers: one for mobile networks (3G or 4G), and one for WiFi. As in, the same system your notebook PC uses to connect to your home router.

Your phone can connect to a wireless network and get its data just the same as your main computer. So when you’re at home, it stands to reason that you should have your phone set to pick up the house WiFi.

The good news is that today’s smartphones are indeed smart enough to know that if there’s a WiFi network nearby, the phone should get all its data off that network, and not use the mobile data network at all.

Don’t just use the home WiFi, either. If you’re lucky, you can leapfrog from WiFi to WiFi all the way in to work and back. Some networks are open, so watch out for security (maybe don’t do your internet banking at the coffee shop).

The risk we mentioned comes in the way that, if the WiFi network shuts down or you move unintentionally out of range, the phone will switch automatically back to the mobile network. Boom – you’re spending again.

1. Set hard data limits!

At the end of the day, a crazy data bill is caused by the fact that it’s really hard to tell how much data you actually use on your mobile. How big is website X? Was that video I just watched HD or SD? What’s the bitrate of this streaming comedy radio network? Is this trailwalker app getting these maps from online or are they preloaded? Aaagh!

 

Many Android phones can alert you to when you're approaching your data limit.

 

Android-4.0-based smartphones now have a built-in data usage monitor, and other phones have apps that do the same thing. The great thing about this monitor is that you can set it to first warn you as you approach your data limit, and then you can set it to disable mobile data once the actual limit is reached.

What’s more, the phone will give you a breakdown of which apps, features and services are using data, so you can better adjust your own usage. Most of your data coming from app updates? Turn off updates!

Of course, your phone measures data in one way, and your mobile network provider might measure it in a different way. So it’s usually a good idea to set the data limits slightly below what it says on your contract: 50–100MB should keep you safe.