EXPLAINER | How to save data during lockdown

The new reality of our coronavirus-induced nationwide lockdown means that for many, data is now a scarce resource that has to be managed.

From someone who has been active in the enterprise connectivity space for over 10 years, here are some common pitfalls and tips on how to do this effectively.

Got fibre? You’re lucky.

If you are lucky enough to have access to uncapped fibre, most of this article doesn’t apply to you. My only appeal would be to be aware that those on the receiving end of your missives might not be so lucky.

Sending lots of photos and video clips can unwittingly consume a lot of expensive mobile data on the receiving end. It’s much better to upload those HD videos to a video sharing site (Youtube, Vimeo) and send people a link to the online version rather than sending things directly via email or Whatsapp.

Fibre rollout in South Africa is still in its infancy, which means that many are reliant on cellular data providers.

Mobile data

With lockdown being our new reality, many people are working from home exclusively for the first time. Quality cellular data can be costly, and this requires some adjustments in behaviour. Many also have to share these connections with family members. Family devices almost definitely have not been configured optimally for expensive mobile data.

It is also important to keep in mind how many devices are connected to a Mobile data connection. Is it a single device (like a phone/tablet) or are you sharing the connection via a router or Wifi? With this scenario there are a few important pitfalls to avoid.

But first the data-math – know your Megs from your Gigs.

It’s pretty simple, but getting it wrong can cost you. Roughly, (K)ilo x 1000 = M(ega) x 1000 = G(iga) x 1000 = T(era). The unit of consumption used by mobile operators most often is Megabytes (MB) or Gigabytes (GB).

The essence of effectively controlling your consumption and cost is understanding how much you’ll need. Buying too much, or too little can be costly. A useful rule-of-thumb, when you’re buying data from a mobile operator, is that the larger the bundle size, the cheaper the cost per unit (MB/GB).

The closer you can get to accurately estimating how much you’ll need, the less money you’ll waste, by having to buy multiple bundles or having large unused bundles expiring. The large non-expiring cheap but quality data-bundle is still a mythical beast.

How much is enough?

To calculate how much you’ll need is a difficult task, especially if you are sharing a connection with a number of people whose behaviour you have no control over.

Using my family as an example: We are waiting out the lockdown on a farm in the Kalahari. We are using an MTN 3G connection. At our home in Cape Town we’ve got used to an uncapped fibre connection. Once you’re on uncapped data a different mindset sets in.

Normally, we still care about screen time and what the kids are watching, but data-use is no longer part of the discussion. At the end of a mobile connection it’s a different story and everyone needs to accept this and consider how much data they are consuming.

So what does normal consumption look like?

This depends on what you consider normal. In our case, we’re a family of six, and between us there are 11 devices, encompassing phones, tablets, e-readers, laptops and a smart TV.

The devices are being used for work and entertainment purposes. The kids have taken to doing Zoom calls with their friends on a regular basis. Pretty soon, they’ll be doing school online using Google Classroom.

We are currently consuming around 3GB per day. This means our monthly cost will be R3 500 using an MTN 100GB bundle. Getting here, however, required significantly dialling back our fibre-induced glutinous data habits.

Here is the approach we took

1.   Device settings – Wifi vs. Mobile

Your devices aren’t as smart as you. Many devices have built-in protection to prevent expensive downloads over mobile data. But if you are connected to a router over Wifi, your device has no idea that the router is dishing out “expensive” mobile data and none of these safeguards will work. This requires you to carefully comb through the settings of all the devices on your network to ensure they’re sensibly configured not to allow a free-for-all on Wifi connections.

2.     Automatic updates

This could be your device’s software or updates to apps that you have on your device. If you’re worried about data costs most of these updates can probably wait, so rather set this to manual and decide on a case-by-case basis what is important. Device software updates can be very large, especially if you’re a citizen of Apple-world, you almost definitely want to wait with these.

3.     App settings:

Most apps on your devices were designed in countries where cost of data is not a consideration. Some apps have settings that give you some control over what happens based on the type of connection you’re on. “Wifi-only” auto-download settings Whatsapp for example. Change these apps to only allow manual downloads initiated by you.

4.     Syncing

Automatically synced cloud-based file services like Dropbox and Google Drive can be very wasteful. Many devices can keep a synchronised copy of your work resources (files/docs) on your local drive. Working remotely means more access to shared files and team productivity apps like Slack. Rather disable syncing completely, and only use browser-based interfaces.

5.     Photos

Everyone is snapping lots of pics on their phones these days, and the photo app on your phone most likely has a backup function that uploads your pics to the cloud. You probably want to disable this service.

6.     Autoplay

Social media apps (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc.) that cater for video sharing all have an autoplay feature. Rather turn this off and manually select the videos you want to watch.

7.     Streaming apps

Apps such as Netflix, Showmax, Amazon Prime all have settings to download series and movies onto devices. Hopefully you can download a ton while you have access to cheap data. If that’s not the case, you want to get to grips with SD, HD & 4K definitions. The higher the definition the more data you’ll require. The screen you’re watching on is another consideration. The smaller the screen the less noticeable lower quality definition is. When you’re using a streaming service you can set the default quality, SD makes a lot of sense especially if you’re watching on a small screen.

8. Disable “Smart Downloads”

Streaming video and podcast apps can be configured to download episodes silently in advance. This only makes sense if data cost isn’t a consideration.

The bottom line

Relatively expensive mobile data is going to be with us for some time. Also, the saying “you get what you pay for” also holds true in mobile data land. Typically cheaper data is not the quality you would expect.

Just like Capetonians became water-wise during the day-zero crisis and loadshedding forced us to understand and adapt our consumption of electricity, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have an uncapped fibre connection being “data-wise” and understanding how to conserve a limited resource requires educating yourself and your fellow lockdown inhabitants.

Kees Snijders is MD of Flickswitch, which helps companies manage prepaid, APN and data roaming SIM cards

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